Opinion: A cheaper, quicker, more civil way to run San Jose elections: instant runoffs

By Blair Bobier
Published March 7th 2009 in San Jose Mercury News

Madison Nguyen shouldn't be the only one breathing a sigh a relief.

When San Jose District 7 voters rejected a recall of the city councilwoman Tuesday, they spared the entire city the cost of holding two additional special elections.

If a majority of District 7 voters had said yes to the recall, they would have set the stage for a second election with candidates competing for the open council seat. But that wouldn't have been the end of it. If, as in prior special elections, no candidate received a majority of votes, that would have triggered yet another election because the city charter requires runoffs to ensure that a candidate is elected by majority vote.

Pricey special elections and their resulting runoffs, now estimated to cost taxpayers $500,000 a pop, are not unusual in San Jose. There were two special elections in 2007 and two in 2005. If you're thinking there's got to be a better way to do this, you're right.

Conducting two elections — months apart — to elect a candidate by majority vote is expensive and time consuming. By using instant runoff voting, San Jose could combine the two elections. This would save everyone — candidates, supporters and volunteers — time and money. In fact, San Jose could use instant runoff voting not only for special elections, but as the standard method of electing the council.

Here's how instant runoff voting, or IRV works: Instead of voting for one candidate, voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, marking their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. A candidate who wins a majority of first-choice rankings is elected. If, however, no candidate receives an initial majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice rankings is eliminated. That candidate's supporters have their votes count for their second choice. The votes are counted again to see if any candidate has a majority. If not, the process repeats until a candidate emerges with majority support.

San Francisco has saved millions of dollars since switching to IRV for local elections in 2004. This success — and the savings associated with it — have not gone unnoticed. Los Angeles recently created a task force to study IRV as a way to cut costs and boost voter turnout. Long Beach is also taking a look.


Another benefit of IRV is that it creates more-civil campaigns. When candidates understand that they need to court the second-choice votes from their opponents' supporters, they have an incentive to avoid negative campaigning.

There is considerable interest in IRV locally. The League of Women Voters in Santa Clara County recommends using IRV for a variety of elected offices, and the San Jose Elections Commission has agreed to study it.

Using IRV in San Jose would require amending the city charter. Santa Clara County went a similar route in 1998 when voters approved Measure F, a charter amendment allowing the use of IRV for county elections when the technology became available.

Now that the technology is available, and IRV is being used from Ireland to Arkansas, San Jose should seriously consider this election method as a way to save money, reduce the length and cost of campaigns and promote civility. The capital of Silicon Valley is the perfect place to welcome innovation in elections.

Blair Bobier is a deputy director of the New America Foundation"s Political Reform Program. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.