Voters have a choice
Instant runoff voting on ballot as advisory measure

By Claire St. John
Published October 25th 2006 in The Davis Enterprise

No matter how Davis votes on Measure L, the way the city elects its representatives isn’t likely to change for a long time.

Measure L is an advisory vote, designed to let City Council members know if they should continue to explore changing the way the city votes.

Measure L specifically asks if the city should consider choice voting, which allows voters to rank as many candidates as desired in order of preference. If the first candidate doesn’t get enough votes, the second choice is counted, then the third, the fourth and so on until each candidate has broad support.

Currently, Davis elects its representatives under an at-large plurality system. Either two or three seats are open in each Davis City Council election, and voters each cast two or three votes for their preferred candidates. The two or three candidates with the most votes win the seats.

In the last election, successful candidate Ruth Asmundson received 24.5 percent of the vote, and Lamar Heystek, who also won a seat, received 24 percent of the vote.

Choice voting may not have changed the results of the election, but it would have shown a broader base of support for the candidates as second and third votes were allotted to them after less successful candidates were eliminated, advocates say.

"'Majority rules' is more apparent under choice voting," said Mike Levy, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in June and who also chaired the city’s Governance Task Force. The task force strongly recommended choice voting for the city of Davis.

"It is literally putting a number of runoffs in one race," Levy said.

Across the nation

Choice voting is also on the Nov. 7 ballot in Oakland, Minneapolis, Minn., and Pierce County, Washington.

It is already used, in one form or another, in San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and by the student governments of UC Davis and UC Berkeley, among others.

Chris Jerdonek, a UC Davis graduate and Measure L campaigner, said ASUCD elections showed much more proportionality after choice voting was implemented, and the same could be true for the city.

ASUCD, or the Associated Students of UC Davis, has six seats open for every election, and shows more clearly how the current system can lead to uneven results, Jerdonek said.

"Under the current system, some people elect zero candidates, some elect two or three," he said. "Under choice voting, almost everyone gets to elect someone. It ensures that the council is elected by the maximum amount of people."

Choice voting advocates say in a three-seat election, a minimum of 75 percent of voters are represented. In a six-seat election such as ASUCD’s, a minimum of 89 percent of voters can say they helped elect someone.

Choice voting also eliminates strategies like bullet voting for one candidate to ensure a victory, Levy said. Although voters can choose to rank only one person under choice voting, there’s less incentive because more rankings won’t hurt a voter’s first choice.

Candidate strategies are eliminated as well.

Davis doesn’t have official parties, but it does have groups, most commonly referred to as the progressives and the moderates. If one group or the other has too many candidates running, it can divide the vote, giving the other, more concentrated group the seats.

"Candidate manipulation is a problem under the current system," Levy said. "If a party runs more than two or three candidates, depending on how many seats are available, they split the vote and are more likely to lose."

Under choice voting, Levy said, there is no limit to how many candidates can run, and no limit to how many voters can rank with no fear of hurting their first choices’ chances.

"Who are the parties to say who should run?" he said. "Voters should say who runs."

Unofficial opposition

There is no official opposition to Measure L, but some have voiced their distaste of choice voting in letters to the editor.

Criticism often focuses on the difficulties of understanding exactly how choice voting works. Detailed explanations can be mind-numbing, but Measure L — which just asks that the council keep talking about choice voting — doesn’t require a Ph.D. in electoral processes, said Councilman Stephen Souza.

"One does not have to get into the machinations of how it works," he said. "That’s what computers are for. Computers will deal with the necessary formulas to bring us results. You rank them one to x. It’s that simple. To make it more complicated than that is unnecessary."

The City Council itself was divided, and put the measure on the ballot on a 3-2 vote.

Lamar Heystek, who joined the council after it approved Measure L, is in favor of choice voting, but said he would have liked to see more effort made on behalf of Measure L.

"I certainly favor a community vote, I just question the timing of it," Heystek said. "Placing it on the ballot at this point may have been helpful to allow that discussion, but I would have appreciated City Hall doing more outreach and education before putting it on the ballot."

On the city’s Web site is an item titled "What is Measure K?" explaining the measure that, if approved, would allow a Target store to be built on Second Street. There is no similar item for Measure L.

Levy said he would have preferred the City Council put a binding measure on the ballot.

"I think with advisory votes, there’s little utility in most circumstances," he said.

Souza, who voted in favor of putting Measure L on the ballot, disagreed.

"I think it would be good to get through the advisory vote a feeling of the public as to whether there is a desire to change the system we now have in electing the City Council members," he said.

The council has the option of continuing to discuss choice voting even if voters reject Measure L, Souza said.

The ballot language doesn’t go into detail about what form of choice voting the city might consider, whether it would be used in districts or when it might be applied, if ever. That makes Mayor Sue Greenwald uncomfortable.

"I think this ballot measure is too broad and doesn’t give the council direction in how to go," said Greenwald, who along with Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson voted against putting choice voting on the ballot.

"Choice voting was not defined. It meant anything from district elections with instant runoff to multi-seat elections. It would not enlighten the council as to what the voters want."

Like Heystek, Greenwald is also disappointed the council chose to put choice voting on an already full ballot.

"Right now, I think we have too many issues on the ballot,” she said. “Between SMUD, Target and choice voting, I think we’ve really harmed the SMUD campaign. It really is sad.”

A stumbling block

Even if choice voting gets resounding support, Davis won’t be able to use it.

Davis is a general-law city, which means the state dictates how it taxes its citizens, how it elects its representatives and how it contracts with employees, among other things.

Choice voting can be used if the city drew up a charter with approval from voters.

Some people against Measure L cite problems with creating a charter as the main issue with the measure.

"I think there’s all kinds of issues involving a charter that are going to be much more significant to us," Greenwald said. "Whatever we’re doing, we’re dealing with a major issue of a charter, and that’s opening up some extremely controversial areas.

"In general, a charter is a constitution," she said. "When it’s written, it tends to be written to perpetuate the power of those in office. It makes me nervous. They could do a really broad charter."

Many of those in favor of Measure L say a charter has nothing to do with what’s on the ballot, which, at its essence, is just a request that the City Council further explore the possibilities of choice voting, and neither the complexity of the voting system nor the charter should get in the way of that, Jerdonek said.

"This is really just ‘should we by considering it?’ he said. "Do you really need to understand it just to consider it? For someone to say ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t think we should consider it,’ doesn’t make any sense to me."

Besides, Souza said, Davis could implement choice voting by getting an exception from the state as it did when it put Measure P, the half-cent sales tax passed in 2004, on the ballot.

Souza said he views Measure L as an opportunity for the community to discuss alternate ways of electing officials as well as a chance to talk about the possibility of a city charter.

"Anything that’s new, you have to try and you have to discuss before you feel comfortable with it," he said.

Q&A

How does choice voting work?

Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Voters can rank as many or as few as they want. Ballots are tallied in rounds until all seats are filled.

How does it benefit the voter?

Choice voting makes it much more likely for each voter to elect a candidate he or she really supports.

What’s the difference between a plurality and a majority?

A majority is more than fifty percent, or more than half. A plurality is the largest number, even if it is less than a majority.

What’s wrong with the current plurality system?

The current plurality system allows a plurality of voters to elect all the winners, even if that plurality is less than a majority.

How are the ballots actually tallied?

Each ballot counts initially towards its first choice. If no candidate has enough votes to win, the last-place candidate is eliminated and voters for that candidate have their ballot count towards their next choice. If some candidate does have enough votes to win, that candidate is elected and voters for that candidate have the surplus part of their vote count towards their next choice. All the ballots are counted again in a new round, and the process continues in a similar fashion until all seats are filled.

Does Davis need to approve a charter before choice voting can be implemented?

Yes, under the current California Elections Code. Davis can also ask the State Legislature to pass a special law that would let Davis implement choice voting without a charter.

Is this a commonly used system? Where else is it used?

Choice voting is currently used by Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, and Burlington, VT for city elections. Outside the United States choice voting is used by the city of London and in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, and other nations. Dozens of universities use choice voting including UC Davis, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.