Time for a fact check on county’s new voting system

By Richard Anderson-Connolly
Published June 7th 2007 in The News Tribune

Two recent opinion pieces in The News Tribune about Pierce County’s new ranked-choice voting system are good examples of how bad news, even when incorrect, travels fast.

At the May 9 meeting of the Blue Ribbon Review Panel, Scott Konopasek, the consultant hired by the auditor to aid the implementation of the voting system, referred to erratic results produced by ranked-choice voting elections, meaning that the candidate in the lead is likely to change from one day to the next after Election Day as new ballots are counted.

Peter Callaghan (column, 5-29) and the editorial board (editorial, 5-30) ran with the story, referring to results that will “vary greatly” and “change much more than they do with traditional voting.” The somber conclusion was that the county auditor, to protect the public from confusion and angst, might not be able to release election results on a daily basis.

In reality, the consultant hired by the auditor to help with the system has no experience with it and was simply wrong.

There is no evidence to support the assertion of big swings over time in election results under ranked-choice voting. When I asked him, Konopasek could not give any examples of when this happened. Further, John Arntz, the director of elections of San Francisco, confirmed that no big swings (or even small ones) occurred.

It is certainly possible, and presumably it will happen every now and again, that the lead will change a few times as more ballots come in during a close race. But that happens now, and we still are given daily updates. The race is not over until certification.

Given the ease with which the claim can be refuted, one might wonder why this story got rolling. Unfortunately, Auditor Pat McCarthy made several blunders.

• She decided not to invite advocates of the voting system to join the Blue Ribbon Review Panel. Thus, for example, she passed over the president of the Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters. On the other hand, opposition to, or ignorance of, the system was no barrier to membership.

McCarthy’s rationale was that advocates are “myopic.” Presumably, the representatives of the Democrats, the Republicans, the secretary of state, the attorney general and the auditor herself have perfect vision, free of any bias or political agenda.

By keeping advocates off the panel, McCarthy denied herself access to knowledge about the system that would have proved useful. It certainly would have prevented this flap over “big swings.”

• McCarthy also decided that the public would not be allowed to comment except for three minutes at the end of the last meeting. If given the chance earlier, some members of the public certainly would have asked for evidence of those alleged big swings.

• Hiring a consultant without relevant expertise was the most significant issue, as he was the source of the claim about big swings. While Konopasek has no experience with the voting system, the auditor said that he has an understanding of election law in California and Washington. It’s not clear how the California background is useful, but in any case knowledge of Washington election law doesn’t give us much guidance on ranked-choice voting.

Despite these miscues, I do not expect any significant problems with the 2008 elections. Fortunately for the auditor and the voters in Pierce County, the new system just isn’t that hard.

Several jurisdictions across the country have already successfully implemented it; several more are working on it. San Francisco had only six months to prepare for its first ranked-choice election in 2004, and it had no model to follow as it was the first. Since then Burlington, Vt., and Takoma Park, Md., have also successfully run ranked-choice elections.

Voters in those jurisdictions had no difficulties in ranking candidates. The equipment was upgraded to handle ranked-choice counting before each election.

Pierce County can borrow what worked well in other places. I suggest taking a close look at Burlington; it was able to reduce per-capita expenditures on voter education compared to San Francisco with no reduction in effectiveness. Burlington had a 0.1 percent rate of invalid ballots – about 100 times better than the pick-a-party primary in Pierce County. The system is not as confusing to voters as its detractors had hoped.

Certainly ranked-choice voting would be a bigger story if it were a disaster. But that’s unlikely. It has worked in other places and can work here.

And let’s remember what we are getting: more voter choice, majority winners and elimination of the pick-a-party primary in several county races.

Sorry, newsmakers, I hate to be the bearer of good news.

Richard Anderson-Connolly is an associate professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound.