Choice Voting Is the Way to Go

By Preston Jordan
Published November 6th 2008 in Berkeley Daily Planet
As a resident of Albany, I have read Sharon Hudson’s series on the problems created with Berkeley’s electoral system with fascination. Her commentaries, published in the Oct. 9, 16 and 30 issues of the Berkeley Daily Planet, present a brief history of Berkeley’s previous “at-large” system of electing the City Council, the current district system of election, and the problems created by each.

For 100 years, Albany has used the at- large system to elect its councilmembers. This certainly makes sense due to Albany’s small size, but has led to the same problems Berkeley experienced wherein the largest voting bloc gains all the representation while smaller blocs gain none. Ms. Hudson notes this problem as a reason Berkeley switched to district elections. She then elucidates the many pitfalls of districts elections, including a lack of representation for large groups of voters, parochialism on the part of district councilmembers, and the creation of safe seats through the power of incumbency.

Ms. Hudson’s final commentary offers some possible solutions, including hybridizing the district and at-large systems. She demonstrates considerable creativity and civic goodwill in putting forth these solutions. For any citizen to take time out from all the other demands of life to examine and critique the foundation of our representative democracy is crucial to its continual renewal (as it was to its creation).

Ms. Hudson variously proposes switching to two-member districts with staggered majority elections, to district elections that provide out-of-district voters some input via a fractional vote, and/or to districts combined with at- large election of some councilmembers (such as in Oakland). Unfortunately, all of these increase complexity relative to the current system. There is another much simpler reform that incorporates all the advantages, and more, of district and at-large elections, while avoiding their disadvantages. It is called Choice Voting.

Choice Voting is the multiple seat equivalent of Instant Runoff Voting (which Berkeleyans passed by 72 percent in 2004, but has not been implemented due to the same election vendor problems plaguing much of the country). When Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is implemented (almost certain for 2010), voters will be able to rank the candidates. This allows “instant runoffs” if necessary to determine a majority winner in one election. Ranking the candidates also eliminates the “spoiler effect” and provides an incentive for candidates to campaign positively in order to garner the highest ranking possible from each voter. Despite these positives, IRV will not overcome the inherent problem of single-seat districts. They preclude representation for large groups of voters.

Choice Voting resolves this anti-democratic pitfall. It allows voters to rank candidates in multi-seat elections, and candidates win in proportion to voter support. What does this mean? Posit that Berkeley returns to city-wide elections. In a conventional at-large election, the largest group of voters would elect all the councilmembers, excluding all representation for smaller groups of voters. With Choice Voting, though, if 50 percent of the electorate holds a particular set of values/point of view, this group will elect only 50 percent of the council rather than 100 percent. If another 25 percent holds a different set of values/point of view, this group will elect 25 percent of the council rather than 0 percent.

The effect of this change is profound. Whereas districts impose a rigid electoral geography from above, Choice Voting allows the electoral geography to emerge from the people. For instance, under city-wide Choice Voting, some voters may value representation for their particular area of the city. The successful candidate addressing these voters will garner a high proportion of their support from that particular area. Other voters may value representation concerning particular city-wide issues. The successful candidate addressing these voters will need only a low percentage of support in any particular area, but that same level of support throughout the entire city.

Choice Voting is consequently the most graceful solution to the problems of single-seat districts versus winner-take-all at-large systems. It affords the people the power to reorganize their representation from election to election without preconception. This is in contrast with the district system that rigidly divides voters into groups by fiat, affording success to those politicians that cynically choose who is worth representing and who is not.

Choice Voting may seem like a dream to many, and a horror to a few (like those in power). To the dreamers, I say it is attainable. Our forebears attained it. Choice Voting was brought forth to combat the machine politics of the early 1900s. At its peak, it was used in two dozen cities across the country, including Sacramento. It allowed the first election of the first African-Americans to the council in many of these cities.

Ultimately, because it so reduced the power of the political machines, they were almost completely successful in gaining its repeal during the Cold War. The only holdouts are the citizens of Cambridge, Massachusetts, another university town. They still use Choice Voting to elect their nine city councilmembers, as they have done since 1941.

History shows that Choice Voting in the East Bay will have to come from us, the people, the dreamers. Our politicians generally prefer the current blood sport of winner-take-all, having been weaned on it for their entire careers.

More on the history of Choice Voting can be read at ?page=647. If you would like to continue the discussion, please contact me at [email protected].

If you have read this far, I thank you for your interest in democracy. Take care.

Preston Jordan is an Albany resident.