Berkeley Daily Planet
Commentary: City Can Get Better Government for Less
By John Selawsky
January 27, 2004
Measure I, on the March 2
Berkeley ballot, promises to save the city hundreds of thousands of
dollars while expanding our democracy and saving voters the
inconvenience of a December runoff election. Measure I will give
Berkeley the option of enacting Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) at some
point in the future if the city council determines it will not cost
more money and is feasible.
Measure I addresses several problems with December runoff
elections used in Berkeley: They are expensive for taxpayers, they
contribute to very low voter turnout, and they undermine campaign
finance reform. According to the Berkeley city attorney, a citywide
runoff costs $300,000 and a district wide runoff $100,000—and that’s
just for a runoff by mail. That money could go to pay for social,
health and other services that are threatened with cutbacks.
Moreover, turnout in Berkeley’s December runoffs has declined for
all eight runoffs since I986 by an average of 28 percent.
Minorities, students, and low income voters are disproportionately
hurt. This is not good for democracy.
December runoffs also undermine campaign finance reform, because
candidates must raise money for two elections, instead of one. The
purpose of the runoff—to ensure majority support for elected
officials—is sound, but the defects outlined above undermine this
Some say we should abolish December runoffs, or move the runoff
to February, or reduce the amount of votes needed to 40 percent.
Unfortunately, all of these would create additional problems, such
as the possibility of electing candidates who do not have the
support of a majority of voters, or having even lower voter turnout
There is a better solution. Instant Runoff Voting achieves the
goal of a runoff election—majority rule—without the cost and hassle
of a second election. Here’s how it works.
IRV is much like the December runoff, except that voters select
their runoff choices ahead of time. Voters select their favorite
candidate, and then indicate their runoff choices by ranking
candidates: first, second, third. If a candidate receives a majority
of first choices, she or he is declared the winner. If not, the
candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of
counting occurs immediately using voters’ “runoff” rankings. Your
ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race.
Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority winner.
In many ways, the “instant” runoff is not much different from the
“delayed” December runoff—except that voters indicate their runoff
choice at the same time as their first choice, so they don’t need to
return to the polls if no candidate receives an outright majority.
By doing it all in one election, we not only produce majority
winners, we save millions of tax dollars over time. We also avoid
the considerable headaches of a second election in the middle of the
busy holiday season.
Moreover, with IRV candidates have incentive to court the
supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third
rankings. Successful candidates usually win by building coalitions,
not by tearing down their opponents through negative campaigning.
That’s good for democracy too.
Voting with IRV also takes away the “spoiler” effect. If IRV had
been used in the 2000 presidential election, the 100,000 Ralph Nader
voters would have had the option of ranking their second/runoff
choice. Undoubtedly thousands of them would have chosen Al Gore, and
Gore would be president right now.
San Francisco passed IRV recently, and it will be used for the
first time in the November 2004 elections. Oakland and San Leandro
have passed measures similar to Measure I. IRV also is used to elect
the president of Ireland, the mayor of London, and the president of
the American Political Science Association (and they know a thing or
two about elections).
Measure I will not implement instant runoff voting, it simply
will give us the option of using IRV at a future date if the city
council determines that it will not cost more than the current
system and is feasible from an election administration standpoint.
IRV makes good fiscal, practical and democratic sense, Vote yes on
Measure I this March.
John Selawsky is president of the
Berkeley School Board. Nancy Bickel is president of the League of
Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville.