Answering Objections from Election Administrators

Many registrars and election officials are understandably cool about implementing a new voting system, such as instant runoff voting, that most voters have never heard of and that the voting equipment can’t easily handle. They will typically raise lots of objections to voting system reforms, so we need to be prepared to address them. The rest of this piece deals with objections that officials will raise to instant runoff voting, but the material applies just as well to objections to choice voting.

Election officials can be formidable opponents of voting system reform. It pays to approach them early and openly and in as constructive manner as possible. If election officials absolutely refuse to consider changing the voting system because "the equipment can’t handle it," it’s probably better to use the approach successfully applied in Santa Clara County, California: write enabling language that permits, but doesn’t require, the use of the new voting system when the technology is available.

Then, when the jurisdiction acquire new equipment, it will have an incentive to make the equipment compatible with transferable ballots, and when you push to implement the new voting system, you can argue the system on its merits rather than getting stuck on equipment and cost.

Here are some questions and concerns that elections officials are likely to raise

Q. Voters won’t be able to handle the new system. They make many mistakes with the current system. How can they handle a more complicated one?

A.All the voter has to do is rank one or more candidates in order of choice. It’s as easy as 1-2-3! Of course, learning any new system requires voter education, but people rank things all the time: favorite movies, all-star athletes, products, etc. Evidence from Cambridge MA and around the world – Ireland, Australia, Malta – suggests that voters can handle a ranked ballot with no trouble. Spoiled ballot rates of 1-4% are typical in places that use a ranked ballot, and some of those places have compulsory voting and force voters to rank all candidates. These error rates are not significantly different than what we experience in usual American elections.

Q. This system will require hugely expensive new voting equipment.

A.It’s true that punch card and push button voting machines are not compatible with transferable ballots, but sooner or later, these outdated pieces of equipment will need to be replaced for reasons of speed, efficiency, security and ease of operation. Modern voting equipment – optical scanners and touch screens – can handle transferable ballots at no additional cost. Let’s make sure any future voting equipment can handle transferable ballots in case we ever want to adopt a new voting system.

On the topic of cost, there is an approach with the potential to save lots of money on election administration whether or not we implement IRV: all-mail balloting. The state of Oregon switched to an all-mail statewide ballot. The state estimates that it saves $3 million per election by doing it entirely by mail. We should consider all-mail balloting, and make sure that any new equipment we buy keeps open that option.

Q. This voting system sounds unconstitutional. It sounds like some voters get an extra vote. Doesn’t this violate one-person/one-vote?

A. Instant runoff voting has been challenged in court, and the Courts upheld the system as a constitutional system that ensures majority rule and obeys the principle of one-person/one-vote. The courts ruled this way because instant runoff voting gives every voter equal voting power, and in each round of ballot counting, every voter’s ballot count for exactly one candidate.

Q. I think instant runoff voting violates state or federal law.

A.Nothing in the United States Constitution prohibits the use of instant runoff voting. Some states require a state constitutional change to implement instant runoff voting at a state level. Other states merely require passage of a state law. At the local level, some cities and counties require charter changes; others merely require the passage of an ordinance. We wouldn’t try to make a change at a local level if state law or the state constitution prohibited it.

Q. How do voters rank candidates?

A. It depends on the equipment. The easiest system is a grid system that looks something like this:

Fred Jackson 1 2 3
Lucille Smith 1 2 3
Arturo Lopez 1 2 3

Then voters either punch or fill in the number ‘1’ next to their first choice candidate, the number ‘2’ next to their second choice, and so on.

With touch screen equipment, voters touch the name of the candidate in order of choice, and the computer automatically places a ‘1’ next to the first candidate touched, a ‘2’ next to the second, and so on. Finally, voters can simply write the number ‘1’ next to their first choice, ‘2’ next to their second, and so on.

Q. How do you do the transfers?

A.The ballot counting equipment reads the rankings on each ballot and stores them in a computer file. Commercially available software reads the data file, counts the votes, performs any transfers needed, and outputs the winner and vote totals by round. Once the data is fed into the software, which runs on a standard personal computer, results are produced in minutes.

If an elections official raises an objection or poses a question that you can’t respond to, say that you’ll check into it, and let us know. We’ll try to answer the question or respond to the objection.

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