Say yes to Instant Runoff Voting

By Editor
Published November 16th 2006 in Pasadena Weekly

With the mid-term elections becoming a distant memory, campaigns for a number of open seats on the Pasadena City Council and the Board of Education are now getting under way.

And with so much at stake, particularly in our hopelessly fractured school district, we think it just makes sense to start using the Instant Runoff Voting system in the March municipal elections.

Although the idea has been bandied about for years, particularly by Ralph Nader and other members of the Green Party, and the Weekly has supported the concept since it was first broached locally in the late 1990s, the spring election season — with the mayor’s seat and four council and three school board positions up for grabs — is as good a time as any to get started.

Why do we support IRV? For one thing, it’s more inclusive. For another, it’s cheaper.

IRV is used for single-winner elections in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. If no candidate wins a majority at first count, candidates with the fewest number of votes are eliminated so that second and third choices of voters can be applied to other candidates until one wins a majority.

The term Instant Runoff Voting, according to Wikipedia, is used because it resembles a series of runoff elections. But instead of organizing a costly runoff, all the candidates are decided in one round, saving tons of money in the process.

How much money, you ask? The April 2005 runoff election between then-school board incumbent Susan Kane and then-challenger Scott Phelps cost the district $229,000, according to Pasadena City Clerk Jane Rodriguez.

What makes that expense so senseless is the fact that soon after the runoff, the district started a financial free fall, unable to close a $6 million budget gap that forced the closure of four elementary schools.

IRV is used in Australia, Ireland, Fiji and, beginning next year, New Guinea, according to Wikipedia. Pierce County, Washington, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Berkeley and most recently Oakland are among eight municipalities using it.

As folks with kids in the system know, the school district’s financial situation isn’t going away. Declining enrollments are largely responsible for this budget crunch, and that is only getting worse with families leaving the district.

At its meeting Monday, the City Council talked at length about elections for school board. Though the idea of separating each school board seat into its own district — much the way city elections are conducted — was discussed, not much was said in public about adopting IRV.

However, in discussions with Deputy Editor Joe Piasecki prior to the meeting, Mayor Bill Bogaard and Councilman Sid Tyler expressed support for IRV. (Please our story on page 11.)

Bogaard, who believes candidates should compete for all board seats in one at-large election, is in favor of considering IRV.

“Before we do anything, there needs to be a community discussion and perhaps a task force,” Bogaard told Piasecki. “I would not want any serious review of the existing structure that does not involve careful attention to the benefits of IRV, because it just seems to me that it is a good way to simplify the electoral system as well as to encourage greater participation.

“IRV is not a winner-take-all. It’s a process in which second choices can end up serving in office, and also assures no one goes into office unless they have majority support,” Bogaard said.

Tyler, who supports ideas of conducting school elections by district, said he also is interested in examining the benefits of IRV.

“It’s already hard for school board candidates to run a citywide campaign just for the primary, let alone a runoff election,” Tyler said. “I’m wondering if IRV might be a way to help them raise the same money and put on better campaigns, and reduce cost of the election. The taxpayers are paying the cost for an extra election.”

Indeed they are, and in more ways than one.