Oakland Voters to Decide Whether to Join Other California Cities in Using Instant Runoff Voting

By Patricia Kernighan
Published August 6th 2006 in California Progress Report
Last week, Councilmember Nancy Nadel and I succeeded in persuading a majority of our fellow Oakland City Councilmembers to put a measure on the November 2006 ballot allowing Oakland voters to decide whether they want to implement Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for City elections. We were backed up by great advocacy and election expertise by several community-based organizations. I’ve been working toward this moment for the last five years and, frankly, the going has been very slow.

It’s high time Oakland voters had the chance. In November 2000 voters approved Measure I, which provided that alternative legal voting methods such as instant runoff voting (IRV) be used to the greatest extent feasible in order to increase voter participation. In January 2002 an Elections Task Force, on which I participated, submitted a report recommending in part that the June Nominating elections with their notoriously low turnouts be eliminated by consolidating all municipal office elections into the November General election and by implementing IRV.

Last month Alameda County, which conducts the City’s elections, eliminated one of the two remaining hurdles. The County just signed a contract for voting machines and software to support IRV. The vendor is required to support IRV beginning in November 2007, a deadline we will work to meet.

Only one hurdle remains. In order to implement IRV for Oakland elections, voters must pass a Charter Amendment. The City Council vote to put the matter on the November ballot puts the decision in voters’ hands, where it should be. If voters approve the measure, the first IRV election would take place in November 2008, eight years after they approved Measure I.

The Importance of Instant Runoff Voting

For a long time I’ve viewed Instant Runoff Voting as an important step in increasing the number of voters who participate in making the important decisions about who represents us. I’m convinced that IRV will result in municipal officials elected by a larger percentage of voters. Over the past eight election cycles, voter turnout consistently has been higher in the General than in the Nominating elections, ranging from 23% to 96% higher. Often, important positions – Mayor, City Councilmembers, City Attorney, City Auditor – have been decided in the low-turnout June Nominating Elections. Too many voters sit out these elections – only 46% voted in the June 2006 elections. Thus, they lose the opportunity to influence the outcome and, as a consequence, a minority of voters makes the decision.

Because of the depressed voter turn out in primary elections, especially in areas of Oakland where minority and immigrant populations predominate, the implementation of IRV can substantially increase voter turn out for all demographics, including minority and immigrant populations. Otherwise, many of the offices up for votes will be determined without the input of a vast majority of the immigrant and minority population.

Increasingly, I’m concerned about young voters turned off by electoral politics. I want to encourage them to participate in local elections. IRV would appeal to those who sit out elections because they feel their preferred candidates are considered long shots. Now they can vote their hearts, knowing that their votes will not be discounted simply because their preferred candidates are not likely to win.

Finally, there are important benefits to taxpayers and voters. IRV saves municipalities and taxpayers the costs associated with Nominating elections.

For these reasons I’ll be urging voters to vote for IRV as I campaign this Fall. I’d like to acknowledge the considerable help of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, FairVote.org and several other organizations in preparing legislation and a background report, mounting press conferences, and answering my colleagues’ questions. If you’d like to read the report submitted by Councilmember Nadel and me on the Pros/Cons of Preferential Voting/Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) dated June 29, 2006, click here.

Patricia Kernighan was elected to represent District 2 on the Oakland City Council in May 2005. During her first year in office, she has fought for safer and cleaner neighborhoods, jobs, affordable housing, and after school programs for youth. Among the key priorities for her first full-term are to expand after-school and children's recreation programs, to continue to improve neighborhood parks and playgrounds, and to fully implement community policing.