Consultant Report on Santa Clara Measure F

May 18, 1998

To:  Subcommittee on Governance and Organization Of the Charter Review Committee

From: Jeff Segol, Harvey M. Rose Accountancy Corporation

Subject: Review of Proposed "Instant Run-off" System for County Elections

At the Subcommittee on Governance and Organization meeting of April 27, 1998, the subcommittee requested analysis of the proposal to change the County Charter to require "instant run-off" elections for members of the Board of Supervisors and countywide offices. The "instant run-off" election proposal has been suggested by Stephen A. Chessin, a County resident and director of Northern California Citizens for Proportional Representation. This memorandum briefly describes this election system, then discusses major arguments for and against its use.


As described in academic materials provided to the subcommittee by Mr. Chessin, the system he is proposing is known variously as the alternative vote, majority-preferential system, or instant run-off election system. Voters, rather than making a single choice in an election for supervisor or the countywide offices, would fill out a ballot ranking candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first preference votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the candidate with the smallest number of first-preference votes is eliminated, and those votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates based on the second-preference selections of voters. This process of transferring votes continues until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

According to materials provided by Mr. Chessin, this system is used in elections for the lower house of Australia's legislature, and for the President of the Republic of Ireland. A variant of this method, called the Single Transferable Vote system, is used in at-large elections for legislative bodies or to elect legislators from multi-member districts. According to one academic source provided by Mr. Chessin, this method was once used in nearly two dozen American cities, but currently is used only for city council and school committee elections in Cambridge, Mass., and for community school board elections in New York City.

Currently elections for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the countywide offices of Assessor, District Attorney and Sheriff are governed by Section 202 of the Charter, for the Board of Supervisors, and Section 501, for the countywide offices. Section 202 calls for a primary election of candidates for the Board of Supervisors, followed by a general election in November. The third paragraph of Section 202 states:

"A candidate is elected who receives a majority of all votes cast at the primary election. When no candidate is so elected, the two candidates who received the highest number of votes shall be the candidates at the November election."

Section 505 of the County Charter states that elections for the countywide offices are to be conducted in the same manner as for the Supervisors. Including these election mechanics in the County Charter is appropriate under Election Code Section 15450, which provides that city and county charters framed under the California Constitution may provide the manner that county elective officers are elected. Consequently, any change would apply only to these County offices.

Issues Associated With Instituting Instant Run-Off Elections

Cost and Feasibility of Implementation

Santa Clara County currently uses the Poll Star voting system. Under this system, voters insert a computer punch card ballot into a plastic device containing numbered ballot positions. The numbered ballot positions are shown in a series of plastic "pages," the voter turns over as he or she votes. The numbered ballot positions on the voting device match numbers in the sample ballot the voter receives that are assigned to candidates and to the yes or no votes on state and local ballot measures. The voter inserts a stylus in the proper numbered hole in the voting device corresponding to the number of the candidate the voter has selected, and presses down, using the stylus to punch a hole in the proper spot on the computer punch card ballot. At the completion of the election, the ballots are brought back to the Registrar of Voters office, where they are counted using high-speed card readers attached to computers. In other words, the name of the candidate or ballot measure position that a voter selects is not shown on the actual document used by the voter to record the vote.

The Registrar indicated in an interview that it is probably technically feasible to utilize the existing system for instant run-off voting. Under such a scenario, if three candidates were running for a County office, for example, each candidate would be designated three numbered punch positions in the sample ballot and the computer ballot card, one position to be used by the voter to designate the candidate their first choice, a different position to make the candidate their second choice, and so on.

One potential problem with this scenario, according to the Registrar, is the capacity of the ballot. The Poll Star computer card provides a maximum of 312 voting positions. For the June 1998 election, which includes elections in Supervisor Districts 1 and 4, and elections for Sheriff, Assessor and District Attorney, an instant run-off system as just described would require 42 punch positions to serve the 13 candidates, or 13 percent of all punch positions on the Poll Star card. For the June 1998 primary, up to 202 of the 312 positions are being used for voters to cast votes, as a result of the open primary and other changes that have made the ballot more crowded. The remaining positions are often unavailable due to ballot design considerations. For example, the Registrar tries to ensure that all candidates for a single office are on the same "page" of the voting device, in order to reduce the potential for voter errors. Furthermore, he also makes sure that the voting positions assigned to yes and no votes for state ballot measures do not correspond to the ballot measure number assigned by the Secretary of State. The Registrar reports that Los Angeles County's failure to do this for one of the measures in the 1996 elections caused a number of complaints by initiative campaigns.

While this problem is most severe for primary elections, the Registrar reports ballot capacity is also a concern for the November general election, particularly in gubernatorial election years like 1998, when the State ballot is the longest because of elections for all constitutional offices, Supreme Court and appellate court justices. The November ballot also typically includes many city and school district elections that are consolidated with the statewide election to save jurisdictions money.

An additional potential problem with using the existing voting system for instant run-off voting is whether the Registrar's existing computer system could be reprogrammed to conduct the redistribution of votes from one candidate to another which instant run-off requires. DFM Associates, Inc. maintains the existing computer system, under a contract with the County. According to the Registrar's staff, DFM is only required to pursue programming enhancements to the County's system which it believes will benefit not only Santa Clara County, but the 16 other counties to which DFM provides similar services. It is thus possible that installing the required programming might require a separate contract between DFM and the County for this special project. The Registrar's Departmental Information Systems Specialist informally estimated the cost of programming this change at $3 million to $5 million, He also estimated the project could take up to two years, including six months to develop the required programming, six months to test it, and up to a year to have the revised system certified by the Secretary of State as appropriate for use in a County election.

As an alternative, the County could use the institution of instant run-off voting as an opportunity to replace Poll Star with a more modern voting system. Cambridge, Mass., which uses a modified version of this system for city council and school committee elections, in 1997 replaced manual counting of city council and school committee ballots with a "mark sense" computerized voting system. In Cambridge's system, a voter marks a numbered bubble on a paper ballot to indicate the ranking of each candidate, and computerized equipment then reads each ballot and performs the redistribution of votes among candidates to complete the instant run-off.

Since 1994, the Registrar has conducted periodic research regarding the availability and cost of alternatives to Poll Star. In June 1995, the Registrar issued a report that included assessments of three mark sense systems. Capital costs for these systems ranged from approximately $1.3 million to $5.9 million, while annual operating costs were estimated to be roughly $350,000 to $480,000 higher than Poll Star, which currently costs the County only about $135,000 per year for materials and equipment leasing costs. Subsequent to the release of the June 1995 report, and a management audit of the Registrar's Office, the Board of Supervisors requested that study of new voting systems continue, using a task force whose representatives included both this author and Mr. Chessin, who has proposed the instant run-off system.

A report from this task force, pending in draft form, is expected to recommend that the County continue to use Poll Star, while awaiting a reduction in prices for new voting systems that permit voters to cast their vote by touching a computerized screen in the voting booth, without using a paper ballot. The task force believes such a system would be user-friendly, best handles the bilingual ballot policies established by the Board of Supervisors, and also offers the best opportunity for a County resident to enter any polling place to vote, thereby possibly reducing the current growth in use of absentee ballots and the associated expense. The task force's research did find that these systems could also accommodate instant run-off voting.

In short, instituting instant run-off elections in Santa Clara County will apparently require significant modifications to the County's voting system at potentially great expense.

Voter Friendliness

As described in the previous section, the Poll Star voting system requires voters to punch a numbered spot on a computer card that matches a number shown in the sample ballot corresponding to a vote for a particular candidate, or for or against a particular ballot measure. This weakness of Poll Star-that candidate names are not included on the actual ballot card or voting device used by voters to cast a vote-has generated regular complaints from voters since the system was instituted in November 1993. The system depends on the accuracy of the sample ballot the voter receives, and on the voter's ability to correctly match the number in the sample ballot with the proper number to be punched on the ballot card. The Registrar has reported fewer complaints as more voters have become accustomed to the system, which tends to work best if voters decide on their selections before they go to the polling place.

Adding an instant run-off system to County elections would add another layer of complexity to a voting system that some voters already find cumbersome. Mr. Chessin has suggested that instant run-off elections are not overly complicated, but are simply different from the system to which Santa Clara County voters are accustomed. He believes this unfamiliarity could be overcome by providing training materials explaining the system, such as the educational brochure used in Australia that provides a detailed explanation of instant run-off voting procedures.

One measure of the complexity of such a system is the incidence of ballots invalidated because of a voter error. Under Santa Clara County's current Poll Star system, these errors are of two types: 1) undervotes, where a voter fails to cast a vote for a particular office or ballot measure, and, 2) overvotes, where the voter selects more choices than are allowed for a particular office or measure, such as accidentally voting for both candidates in an election for county supervisor. According to the Registrar's Office, in the March 1997 primary election for the Board of Supervisors in Districts 2, 3 and 5, there were 31,393 undervotes and 468 overvotes. These two categories totaled 31,861 ballots out of 208,313 ballots cast, or 15.29 percent. However, it is important to note that there is no way to separate an undervote that occurs as a result of a voter error from an undervote that results from a conscious decision not to cast a vote in a particular election race.

We contacted the executive director for the Cambridge Election Commission for information on ballot errors in Cambridge, which uses a variation of instant run-off for city council and school committee elections. The executive director reported that in the 1997 election for Cambridge City Council, 350 invalid ballots were reported, out of 17,229 ballots cast. This is a ballot error rate of slightly more than 2 percent of all ballots cast, and includes ballots that could not be used at all in the council election. The executive director reported that this error rate was fairly consistent with her experience in previous Cambridge elections. She also reported that Cambridge's election law emphasizes extensive efforts to make sure each ballot is used in the election. For example, when a voter mistakenly ranks two candidates as the number one choice, but includes a single second choice, the errant first-choice votes are not counted, and instead the voter's second choice is used.

Although an exact comparison between Cambridge and Santa Clara County elections cannot be made, because of the inability to separate errant from purposeful undervotes here, this comparison does suggest that the greater complexity of instant run-off might result in a significant number of invalid ballots.

The information provided by Mr. Chessin also suggests that one goal of the system is improving the representativeness of elections. As one academic study Mr. Chessin provided states: "The main point of this system is to ensure that the winning candidate is the one preferred by a majority. . ." while a newspaper column on the topic suggests that this system frees voters from voting for the lesser of evils among candidates, for fear of throwing away their vote on a candidate with no chance to win.

However, such results only occur if voters fully exercise their rights under the system by ranking all candidates for each office on the ballot. A voter under instant run-off who marks only a first-preference candidate, and nothing more, may end up partially disenfranchised, with their vote counting less than that of a voter who fills out the ballot completely, and thus has his ballot fully utilized in the instant run-off system. Cambridge does not routinely analyze this factor in its elections, but did provide data from a study conducted of the 1991 election, which had 19 candidates for city council. That analysis showed 771 voters, 3.36 percent of ballots cast, included only a single choice. The analysis also showed that nearly 73 percent of all ballots cast stayed with the voter's first choice candidate, and fewer than 1 percent required more than two transfers. This indicates that the problem addressed here can occur, but is infrequent in Cambridge.

Several of the articles Mr. Chessin provided also suggest that instant run-off voting avoids the fall-off in voter turnout that often occurs between the primary election for an office and the runoff election. However, the examples cited, Congressional runoff elections in Texas and the primary and general elections for mayor in Houston, involve instances where the runoff elections were not consolidated with other broad-based elections. These examples are not appropriate to Santa Clara County, which normally consolidates its primary election with the statewide primary election, and consolidates any required run-off election with the November general election. In a letter to the committee, Mr. Chessin has agreed that an instant run-off election for County offices would most appropriately occur as part of the November general election.

County Cost Savings

The materials Mr. Chessin provided suggest that the County would save money on elections by using the instant run-off system, because separate run-off elections would not be needed. As described in the last section, the County normally consolidates primary elections for supervisor and other County offices with the statewide primary election, now held in June of even-numbered years, and consolidates run-off elections with the November general election in the same years. Because of this consolidation, most of the costs the County incurs for these elections, including paying precinct workers, hiring central office staff, purchasing ballot cards, etc., are costs that would be incurred even under an instant run-off system for County elections.

According to the Registrar, the principal savings from the instant run-off system would be in printing costs for sample ballots, because ballot pages for County elections would not have to be printed twice, once for the June primary election and again in November for those races where a run-off occurs. The Registrar estimates this savings, depending on the number of County races on the ballot and the number of candidates in each race, would range between $10,000 and $25,000 for each County election year in which the instant run-off system was used.

There are scenarios in which the instant run-off system would generate substantially greater savings. For example, in 1997 the County conducted a special election in District 1 to replace former Supervisor Mike Honda, after Honda was elected to the California Assembly. Costs totaled $299,542 for the February 4, 1997 primary election, and $248,898 for the March 18, 1997 run-off election, won by Supervisor Don Gage. Under an instant run-off system, costs for the March 18 run-off election would have been avoided.

Candidate Savings

Materials provided by Mr. Chessin also suggest that the instant run-off system would save candidates for County office money, by relieving them of the need to conduct two election campaigns, a primary and, for those candidates not eliminated in the primary, a run-off election campaign. A countervailing view would attribute the level of campaign spending to other factors, such as the level of competition for a particular office, the presence or absence of an incumbent in a particular race, or the particular issues in an election, rather than to the election system that is utilized. Under this view, use of the instant run-off system may simply concentrate the same level of campaign spending on a single winner-take-all instant run-off election, rather than distributing it among separate primary and run-off campaigns.

We note that one cost potentially avoided by candidates in an instant run-off system, paying for candidate statements in both the official primary sample ballot and the general election sample ballot, is not now charged to candidates for Santa Clara County offices. Section 202 of the County Charter states, in part: "No charge shall be imposed for a candidate statement of qualifications to be included in the voter's pamphlet."

Although we considered several methods to assess the potential impact of this Charter change on campaign spending costs for candidates, we concluded that the broad array of variables affecting campaign finance, and the wide variations in these variables from one election to the next, make it impossible to confidently separate and assess the impact of this change on these costs.

However, we also note that other campaign finance reforms the County has considered may increase the likelihood that instant run-off elections would result in reduced campaign spending. For example, a 1995 amendment to the County's ethics ordinance limited campaign fundraising in Board of Supervisors elections to a period starting eight months prior to the primary election. That section of the ordinance was repealed in 1997. Reinstituting such a time limit, tied to the date of an instant run-off election, would in effect shorten the available period for campaign fundraising by the time difference between the former primary election date and the date of the instant run-off election. By reducing the fundraising time period, such a change may limit the amount of money candidates raise, thereby limiting the amount they are able to spend.


The decision whether to pursue a Charter amendment instituting instant run-off voting in County elections is essentially a policy issue for the Charter Review Committee and the Board of Supervisors. As this analysis indicates, there are both potential benefits from such a system, including potential cost savings to the County and candidates in the operational cost of elections, and potential problems, including the likely need for improvements to the County's voting system at potentially great cost, and the addition of a new level of complexity to County elections which would require significant voter education. Furthermore, the very limited use of this system in local elections in the United States makes it difficult to predict what the effects of such a change might be. We would concur with Mr. Chessin's suggestions, in his February 25 letter to Subcommittee Chairman Tom Fulcher, that this change, if proposed as an amendment to the County Charter, take effect several years after passage, to give the Registrar time to make the needed changes to the County's voting system, and to institute the voter education program that will be necessary to make this change.

c.Members, Charter Review Committee; Mr. Steve Chessin; Registrar of Voters, Dwight Beattie