Rob Richie's Letter to the Ohio Help America Vote Act Planning Commission
Testimony composed April 1, 2003.
Dear Members, Ohio Help America Vote Act Planning Commission, 

Thank you for considering my testimony about the importance of protecting and enhancing Ohio’s prospective investment in new voting equipment.

I am executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that studies the American electoral process. The Center is supported by individuals and foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Open Society Institute. Former Congressman John B. Anderson is our president. Our advisory committee members include former Cuyahoga County charter commission chairwoman Kathleen Barber, former Cincinnati city councilor Marian Spencer, Ohio Representative Tyrone Yates, former Miami of Ohio professor Philip Macklin, former Ohio Governor John Gilligan and Joan Lawrence former Ohio Representative and current director of the Department of Aging.

Your committee will have an important role in improving Ohio elections in many important respects. We have opinions about a range of issues, but I would like to focus on one particular concern: ensuring that new voting equipment has the flexibility to allow Ohio jurisdictions to consider an electoral system expressly permitted by Ohio law and a variation of that system gaining increased attention around the country. We believe this is both an important issue in itself and one that is valuable to consider in light of insights it may provide about other potential equipment standards: in general, the best time to require standards is before a competitive bidding process rather than after new voting equipment is purchased.

Five Ohio cities (Ashtabula, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hamilton and Toledo) in the past have used a ranked-choice electoral system called choice voting, or “the single transferable vote.” Choice voting is used in at-large elections or in multi-seat districts. In addition, interest in a similar system for one-seat office elections called instant runoff voting is growing rapidly, with 20 states now considering legislation to implement it for some level of election. Recommended by Robert's Rules of Order, instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice, rather than select just one.  San Francisco last year adopted instant runoff voting to replace traditional runoff elections, which will save the city millions of dollars each year. Louisiana uses instant runoff voting for its overseas absentee ballots, while Utah Republicans nominate congressional candidates at their state convention with the system.

Choice voting already is an option to Ohio cities for city council elections, but it is an option that only will be available if voting equipment can support its use. The Republic of Ireland and the Massachusetts city of Cambridge currently use choice voting on modern voting equipment (the former with touchscreens, the latter with optical scan), but it is important to specify to election system vendors that new equipment come with the capacity to use a ranked-choice system to avoid future costs.  

The Federal Election Commission’s new Voting System Standards, require vendors to specify whether and how its system can implement ranked order voting [Volume 1 of the standards, Section (n)]. The clearest way to ensure equipment compatibility is the following language:

All new voting systems purchased or leased shall be able to implement ranked order voting in the first election in which the equipment is used.                                              

We believe this language would ensure the vendor would not demand additional time and money to modify software or hardware if a jurisdiction sought to use a ranked choice system. We also do not think it would add anything to the costs of new voting equipment and software. Among the reasons are:

  • First, all major vendors report that they are ready to implement instant runoff voting, if asked. Most have already bid for contracts in which it was required, such as in the Republic of Ireland and Santa Clara County (CA).
  • Second, the key requirement for rank-order voting compatibility is to store “ballot images” – meaning storing each voter’s individual rankings, rather than aggregate totals.  Touch screen equipment (DRE's) and most central optical scanners already store ballot images. Any needed software modifications to output a file of rankings would be minor.
  • Third, when competing for a contract, a vendor has every incentive to avoid passing onto one jurisdiction the costs for a feature that it can use elsewhere. With more and more jurisdictions exploring ranked-choice systems, vendors know that having its equipment and software be ready to implement these systems could help it compete for other contracts. An example of this free-market principle is provided by the February 2003 debate in Santa Clara County (CA), where the County decided late in the process to require a voter-verified paper receipt to its touch screen system. All three finalist vendors quickly stated that they could add the paper receipt at no additional cost to the county.
But if a jurisdiction waits to add provisions until after already investing heavily in new hardware, it becomes a captive customer, totally dependent on its vendor for any upgrades of software. In such a case, we believe vendors will charge the jurisdiction for all costs associated with adapting its equipment. Requiring flexibility for ranked-choice systems, and indeed other qualities such as a voter-verified paper trail, is a classic case of a stitch in time saving nine – in this case a good deal more.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Robert Richie

Executive Director

Recent Articles
October 19th 2009
A better election system
Lowell Sun

Election expert Doug Amy explains how choice voting can "inject new blood" into the elections of Lowell (MA), and give voters a greater incentive to participate.

October 16th 2009
Haven't Detroit voters spoken enough?
Livingston Daily

In Detroit, there have been three mayors in the past two years and the current one has come under scrutiny. Perhaps a system like instant runoff voting will help bring political stability to motor city.

August 21st 2009
Black candidate for Euclid school board to test new voting system
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Limited voting, a form of proportional voting, will be used in Euclid (OH), in the hopes of allowing better representation of minorities.

July 2nd 2009
Reforming Albany
New York Times

FairVote's Rob Richie responds in a letter to the editor making the case for proportional voting systems to bring substantive reform to New York's legislature.