Eugene, OR post-mortem analysis of campaign
September 19, 2001

Yesterday, Eugene votes rejected by a margin of nearly 2-1 a charter amendment that would have required the use of instant runoff voting for mayor and city council elections. 

In the light of successful IRV campaigns in Santa Clara County (CA), Vancouver (WA), Oakland (CA) and San Leandro (CA) over the past 3 years, the results from Eugene may seem surprising.

The failure of this campaign was mainly related to four factors.

First, the charter amendment was portrayed as mandating implementation of instant runoff voting, but the punch card voting equipment used in Lane County is not compatible with IRV.  The director of elections testified that implementing IRV would have been expensive and would have required paper ballots that would have taken several days to count ballots by hand.

Second, largely due to concerns about election administration and possible changes to state law that would have been required before implementation would be possible, the daily newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard opposed the charter amendment.

Third, a well-funded opposition campaign emerged in the final weeks of the campaign, and they ran a series of effective ads portraying IRV as a complicated system.  The Yes campaign did not have the resources to adequately respond.

Fourth, although the charter amendment was been portrayed as an implementation vote, there was not a compelling problem that IRV addressed in Eugene.  Because the charter amendment left up to the city council the details about how and when to implement IRV, the campaign was not able to mobilize around the benefits of moving local elections from a low turnout May election to a high turnout November election.

In San Francisco, for example, where runoffs cost up to $2 million per year and voter turnout often drops precipitously, the problem is clear and the advantages of IRV are more compelling than in Eugene.

The most important implication for future campaigns is the necessity of addressing issues of voting equipment and election administration.  If the existing voting equipment is not compatible with IRV, legislation should be written to allow or implement IRV only when suitable technology is available.  Reformers should also work to ensure that new voting equipment standards and new voting equipment include provisions to ensure compatibility with multiple ballot types, including ranked ballots.  For information, please see our Citizen's Guide to Voting Equipment.