Candidates say 15% could be enough today
Instant runoff would be fairer, all 8 agree

By Jim Herron Zamora
Published May 17th 2005 in San Francisco Chronicle

All eight candidates vying for an Oakland City Council seat in a special mail-only election that ends today say they favor instant runoffs instead of the current voting system that could allow one of them to win outright with as little as 15 percent of the vote.

"This present system does not allow a majority of the voters to elect a candidate," said Pat Kernighan, one of eight candidates hoping to succeed Councilman Danny Wan, who resigned in January after representing the district that largely straddles the northern, southern and eastern shores of Lake Merritt.

The current system "may or may not turn out in my best interests, but I think it is not the most democratic way to count ballots, especially with no runoff," Kernighan said.

Under the current election laws, there is no runoff, so the candidate with the most votes wins. But with eight candidates, the vote could be spread quite thinly, potentially allowing a hopeful with around 15 percent of the votes to win the vacant seat.

"The winner-take-all system doesn't always reflect the preferences of the voters," said candidate Paul Garrison. "Wouldn't it be helpful to know everyone's first, second and choice? ... We could count those votes until someone had a majority."

Candidate David Kakishiba agreed, saying: "Any candidate needs a mandate -- I think getting 50 percent plus one is important. For special elections, we definitely should do this."

The special election ending today marks the first time that Oakland has ever elected a city official by a mail-only ballot. Ballots were mailed to voters more than a month ago, and as of last week, the elections office had received more than 7,000 of 27,000 eligible voter ballots.

Candidate Todd Plate said that under the current system, if 80 percent of the voters pick someone other than the winner, "you really can't claim much of a mandate," Plate said.

The candidates do not agree on a specific way to change the voting system, but they all agreed they would like to see some kind of ranked voting or preferential balloting system similar to those used in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Under instant runoffs -- also known as ranked voting -- voters rank choices for the office being decided, and if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and the votes are redistributed by rank until someone receives a simple majority of votes.

Advocates say ranked-choice voting avoids costly runoff elections and makes elections fairer.

Candidate Shirley Gee has been promoting ranked voting for more than a decade while involved in a task force on the Oakland chapter of the League of Women Voters. She said this election -- regardless of who wins -- would provide proof that the city needs to try something new at least in special elections.

Regularly scheduled City Council races take place in even numbered years and coincide with state and federal elections, with a general election in March or June and then a runoff between the two top finishers in November.

Some candidates, including Aimee Allison and Peggy Moore, would like all city elections changed to ranked voting.

"Elections should ensure majority rule and give citizens confidence that every vote counts," Allison writes on her Web site.

Candidate Justin Horner said that ranked voting would most likely be in Oakland's future but that the city should be cautious and make sure not to create any new problems with a ranked voting system that is complicated or confusing.

"I think the results of the election are really going to show the need for some type of instant runoff system," Horner said. "But we should look at what others have done. The more serious problem is that not enough people are voting. You don't want a system that is going to disenfranchise people."