Instant runoff voting will boost democracy

By Judy Cox
Published September 29th 2006 in Contra Costa Times
OAKLAND VOTERS have an important opportunity to enhance democracy in our city in November.

In July, the Oakland City Council voted 6-2 to put on the ballot an amendment to the city charter which would implement the use of instant runoff voting for electing officials in Oakland. This measure -- known as Measure O -- will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Our present system of electing local officials has serious problems. Most local officials are elected in the June primary, when few people vote -- almost 60 percent more people vote in November elections than in the June primaries, and the percentages of increase are even greater for people of color. Under our present system, if no majority winner emerges in June, two candidates from a race must participate in a second, costly, time-consuming runoff election to choose a winner. Runoffs cost money: $200,000 to $300,000 for citywide runoffs, and thousands for district races. They also put stress on candidates, particularly challengers who must keep jobs and lives going while funding and running their campaigns.

The simple but revolutionary voting practice of instant runoff voting would help remedy the ills of low voter turnout, costly runoff elections, and voter disgust and apathy. Instant runoff voting is a voting method used to select a single winner from a list of two or more candidates in one election. It lets voters register their first choice and then rank the other candidates. Voters can hedge their bets and maintain influence on the outcome of the election, even when their first choice doesn't win. By collecting more meaningful information from voters, it gives them a greater power of choice and measures their will more accurately.

This process was invented in the United States and has been used effectively in San Francisco for two elections. Berkeley voted by a landslide to use it in 2004, but has not yet implemented instant runoff voting because of problems with the electronic voting machines.

In many ways, instant runoff voting is an antidote to the disease of negative campaigning. Under the system, candidates would be less likely to engage in malicious campaigning because such tactics would risk alienating the voters who support "attacked" candidates.

Candidates would have incentives to focus on the substantive issues in a race and gain higher rankings from those voters who might also be choosing another candidate. Voters would hear more about a candidate's positions and get less junk mail assassinating the opposing candidates' character. Ultimately, successful politicians would win by building coalitions and finding common ground, not tearing their opponents down -- the same skills leaders must use to govern wisely and get things done.

Instant runoff voting would also stimulate more participation for candidates outside the predominant two-party system. Third-party and community candidates could run without being labeled spoilers. With only one election to run in (not two as is often the case in our present system), community and third-party candidates have a better chance to raise the money needed to conduct a campaign. Competition, economists say, eventually brings the greatest benefits to consumers.

Limited choices and negative campaigning are killing democracy. Holding elections when most people don't vote is helping with the job (less than 40 percent of Oakland's registered voters participated in last June's election). Requiring two elections to win office is driving away many worthy potential candidates.

We can eliminate many of these serious problems and enhance democracy in Oakland by allowing a greater portion of our registered voters to choose government leaders through instant runoff voting. Vote for this important reform, which will significantly improve Oakland elections.

Judy Cox is on the executive committee for Oakland Instant Runoff Voting and can be reached at[email protected]. She is a former co-chair of the League of Women Voters of Oakland, which is a founding supporter of Measure O.