Instant runoff voting unveiled in Ward 5 election
New candidate ranking system �easy or very easy,� residents at polls say

By Agnes Jasinski
Published February 7th 2007 in The Gazette
While special elections are rare in Takoma Park, there was something even more unusual in how residents elected Reuben Snipper, their new Ward 5 councilman.

This was the first time the city and the state used instant runoff voting (IRV), allowing voters to rank their candidates in order of choice.

The reasoning behind the system is electing candidates who are ‘‘acceptable to a majority,” said Ryan Griffin, director of the IRV American program through Takoma Park-based advocacy group FairVote.

‘‘Say you have a swing district, with our two parties ... you might have one on either side who has a strong support among their base,” Griffin said. ‘‘The question IRV is going to determine is which one will be most acceptable to the rest of the people.”

Of the other two candidates, Eric Hensal received 72 votes. Alexandra Quere Barrionuevo received 23. Snipper needed 102 out of 203 voters to win a majority; he received 107.

The method was adopted in the city’s 2006 election after IRV received the support of 84 percent of Takoma Park voters in a November 2005 advisory referendum. The idea of IRV was brought before the City Council by County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large), the city’s former Ward 5 councilman who was elected to the Montgomery County Council in November. Last week’s election filled Elrich’s spot.

‘‘It was a fun introduction into instant runoff voting because this election did have three candidates,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote. ‘‘It affected how people thought about the race and the meaning of the election.”

The city prepared voters for the change with two separate mailings, one to every Ward 5 household and another a few weeks before the election to every registered voter in the ward detailing the process with a sample ballot. A video was made available on the city’s Web site and was shown on Snapshots, the city’s cable TV program.

The special election cost the city about $3,500, said City Clerk Jessie Carpenter. That included the mailings, cost for judges and the educational video.

Carpenter said the city will look to streamline the process for the election in November. Following the manual count last week, Bethesda-based election services company TrueVote Inc., came in to demonstrate a computer scan method of counting ballots. The scan came up with the same number of votes as the election judges, even recognizing an invalid ballot.

While Carpenter said she is not ready to recommend a scanning system to the City Council, she said finding a vendor to do a computerized count would take some of the stress off election judges and make counting votes less time-consuming. Another option would be hiring additional counters to come in after results are in.

‘‘I’ll be looking for ways to make the counts go a little faster,” Carpenter said. ‘‘I’m anxious to see what other systems are out there.”

According to a poll of 79 voters conducted by FairVote, 88 percent of voters in the special election found the method easy or very easy. More than 80 percent knew coming into the election that they would be asked to rank their choices, according to the informal survey.

Snipper said the new method contributed to a more positive campaign. Since second choice votes could be of value if no candidate won a majority, it made the candidates more cautious about bad-mouthing their opponents, he said.

‘‘If you’re talking with a resident and they make it clear, ‘I’m not voting for you,’ or it’s obvious from their views that they’re not going to vote for you, you tend not to want to go negative ... most people react badly to that,” he said. ‘‘In that case, you’re essentially trying to sell yourself as a second-choice candidate.”

Griffin said the method gives candidates incentive to reach out to their opponents’ supporters. According to the FairVote poll, 56 percent of respondents felt there was less negative campaigning in the Ward 5 special election than in previous contests.

Hensal, who finished with 72 votes, said he was curious to look at the paper ballots to see where Barrionuevo’s votes would have gone had it come down to counting second-choice votes. Carpenter said she would include that information as part of a report describing the computer scan process later this week, but because those votes were tallied by the scans and not the city’s election judges, the information will be unofficial.

IRV has been used in local elections in San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. Several cities in North Carolina are looking to phase in IRV to local elections within the next few years.

What would have happened if ...

If Reuben Snipper hadn’t received a majority:

The candidate with the fewest first choice votes, Alexandra Quere Barrionuevo, would have had her 23 second-choice votes redistributed to the remaining two candidates.

If second-place candidate Eric Hensal received enough second-choice votes in that second round to win a majority, Hensal would have won the seat.

More rounds are typically needed with more candidates to determine a majority. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they choose.