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Instant Runoff Voting Could Lead to Big Savings for Cities, Counties

Andrew Carico // Published July 22, 2009 in PublicCEO
The California State Legislature recently passed AB 1121, authored by Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles), which will allow 10 general law cities to participate in a pilot project that would grant them to use instant runoff voting.

Moreover, this bill will permit these general law jurisdictions the same rights that charter cities now possess in regard to holding an instant runoff election.

“In these economically challenging times, it’s a measure to help local governments save money; and it can help produce more people participating in the election process,” said Davis.

Instant runoff voting is when voters rank candidates in an order of their preference. If no candidate receives first preference by a majority of voters, the candidate with the fewest number of first preference rankings is eliminated. That candidate’s ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates according to the next ranking on each ballot.

This process is repeated until one candidate obtains a majority of votes among all the candidates that have not been eliminated. Its intended goals are to eliminate costly runoff elections that can sometimes take place months after the original election if one person running does not receive the needed majority.

Robert Dickinson, Executive Vice President for Californians for Election Reform, which was the main sponsor of AB 1121, said the benefits of Instant Runoff Voting far outweigh the traditional runoff process.

“The runoff system has had real problems not only because municipalities spend a lot of money but candidates have to go out and raise a lot of money which has its own campaign finance implications,” said Dickinson. “It also relates to plummeting voter turnouts.”

Dickinson provided a startling example of how the traditional runoffs can have detrimental ends.

“In Los Angeles, they had a series of local runoff elections that cost $5 million and only had 6 percent voter turnout,” said Dickinson.

Los Angeles County does not currently have instant runoff voting, but Davis said because they are a charter city, they have power to develop it.

“Mark Ridley Thomas has proposed an ordinance that will hopefully give LA County this opportunity,” said Davis.

A shining area of where this method has worked in California is San Francisco.

According to Californians for Election Reform, San Francisco saw an overall estimated effective tripling of voter participation as a result of using ranked voting (as well as the benefits of being able to combine two elections into a single election) and as much as a quadrupling of turnout among minority and low-income neighborhoods.

For an analysis of how Instant Runoff Voting led to significant improvements in voter turnout in San Francisco, see: http://www.sfrcv.org/reports/turnout.pdf.

“In the end, with traditional runoff elections you’re spending a lot of money but not getting a lot of democratic benefits,” said Dickinson.

Assembly Bill 1121 may be the beginning of a long process in seeing this voting method implemented all across the state.

“We don’t have Instant Runoff Voting here, and there’s not really any discussion on it yet,” said El Dorado County Registrar William E. Schultz. “The California League of Women Voters strongly backs it, but we’re just kind of sitting back and waiting on what’s going to happen everywhere else.”

Fresno County Registrar Victor Salazar had similar sentiments.

“No, we don’t have Instant Runoff Voting here,” said Salazar. “I know it’s an issue that comes up sometimes when I speak with the public, but I don’t think the Board of Supervisors is considering it at this time.”

AB1121 received positive reviews from some prominent local government entities. The League of California Cities endorsed the bill and testified on its behalf. A similar bill from last session, AB1294, received support from the City Clerks Association of California.

According to Californians for Election Reform, AB1121 is important in that most local jurisdictions are not able to use ranked voting systems under current law, regardless of the wishes of the governing body of those jurisdictions or the wishes of a majority of voters in those jurisdictions.

Currently, only charter counties or charter cities can use Instant Runoff Voting, but over three-fourths of cities and counties are general law jurisdictions and don’t have the option. Over half of Californians live in a general law city, a general law county, or both.

“Instant Runoff Voting provides a lot of local governments the opportunity to save a substantial amount of money when a lot of local governments are struggling,” said Dickinson.

However, instant runoff voting does not come without its naysayers.

Some disagree with the Instant Runoff Voting format, stating the traditional simple plurality method is good enough. Many well-known American leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, did not receive a majority of the vote when he was elected.

The other side also argues that this format violates the one-person, one-vote mandate, and actually cost localities more money when they have to implement the new software and equipment, voter education, testing, staffing, consultants, ballot printing and postage costs.

“We can evaluate the potential success of this through the pilot project,” said Davis. “We hope that as a result of the implement of this that more cities will discover that it is a measure that will increase participation and be cost saving.

“Hopefully more cities and counties will be a part of this.”