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Testimony for Colorado House on HB-1378 by Terry Bouricius

I have been asked to give testimony regarding instant runoff voting and its implementation.


First I should give my relevant credentials. I served ten years on the Burlington, VT City Council, including a term as president. I then served ten years as a member of the Vermont House of Representatives, where I drafted legislation on instant runoff voting. After leaving the legislature I served on the state board of the League of Women Voters of Vermont. Professionally, I am an elections administration consultant, having administered elections for non-profit organizations and consulting on ranked-voting election methods. I am a senior policy analyst for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, and have given testimony and consulted on IRV with Republicans and Democrats in over a dozen states and numerous municipalities. I designed the ballot, the vote tabulation procedures, and voter education plan for Burlington, Vermont for its 2006 IRV election.

I am going to focus my discussion of IRV on the case example of Vermont and Burlington in particular.

In 1998 the Vermont House of Representatives passed a resolution creating a Citizens Commission to Study Preference Voting. This Commission had members from across the political spectrum, including former legislators, and others. The Commissions final report (available at http://fairvote.org/irv/vermont/index.html) unanimously recommended the adoption of instant runoff voting for all statewide elections. The key finding of this commission was that plurality election rules in common use through out the U.S. cannot accommodate more than two candidates without risk of "spoiler" situations resulting in the true will of the majority being thwarted. IRV was deemed the best solution. Various organizations have joined in coalition to support IRV including the Vermont chapters of the League of Women Voters, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the Vermont PIRG, the Vermont Grange and others.

IRV legislation was introduced each session since then. A bill (S.108) that would implement IRV in Vermont's congressional elections starting in November 2008 recently passed the House and Senate, and has been sent to the governor for his signature. In the mean time, as a result of advocacy by the League of Women Voters, the Burlington city council proposed and the voters passed a charter amendment to require instant runoff voting in mayoral elections in order to protect the principle of majority rule and avoid "spoiler" scenarios. Vermont is not a home rule state, so this charter change needed legislative approval. It passed both chambers and was signed into law by the governor. The first use of IRV in Burlington was in 2006.

By all accounts, the Burlington IRV election was extremely successful. Exit polls conducted by a political science professor at the University of Vermont found that voters overwhelmingly preferred IRV to the former voting method. Some people had worried that voters might not be able to handle using ranked ballots leading to lower turnout or many spoiled ballots. However, turnout was higher than recent mayoral elections, and among those voting in the mayoral race 99.9% of ballots were valid.

Burlington engaged in a modest voter education effort, which included a postcard to each voter address, a web site, some bus signs, public service announcements, and explanatory material using graphics in each polling booth and absentee ballot envelope. The marginal cost was approximately 25 cents per voter. The exit poll showed that most voters learned about IRV from the news media or candidate campaigns, rather than directly from the city. It is my opinion, that with good ballot design and polling place information an IRV election can be simple for voters with even less voter education, although I would still advocate making an effort.

One reason the transition to IRV in Burlington was so successful was the fact that the Director of Elections, Jo LaMarche, had a can-do attitude and sought expert advice. The single biggest challenge faced was the voting equipment. While the vendor, LHS Associates that sells and services the optical scan system used by both Burlington and Cambridge, MA (Premier Election Solutions, formerly Diebold) revealed some ignorance about how their own firmware functioned, the city was able to utilize its existing voting machines running the Cambridge firmware to capture a record of each set of ballot rankings, and then run some open-source Freeware called Choice Plus Pro to quickly tally the IRV ballots.

While the hardware and software employed allowed for announcing the final results in the early evening of election day, there is some reason to consider a different approach for an IRV election in the future. All of the major vendors of voting equipment are being pressed by various jurisdictions for fully-compatible ranked-ballot machines. Sequoia, ES&S and Premier Election Solutions may have equipment soon, but it is hard to predict when such equipment will be for sale. If a jurisdiction does not yet have ranked-ballot equipment, there are "work-arounds." it is possible to use standard optical scan voting machines with no upgrade of firmware, such that the machines only count first choices on election day. If there is no initial majority winner, the ballots can subsequently (the next day) be either hand tallied for alternate choices (as was done in Cary, North Carolina), or fed through a high-speed commercial scanner (as was done in Takoma Park, MD). Once the ballots have been scanned, standard off-the-shelf mark-sense software (such as is sold for reading surveys and tests) can be used to read the alternate rankings. These approaches are relatively inexpensive, but would delay the announcement of final election results by at least a day. Note that there are no federal certification requirements when commercial general use hardware and software are used, since these are not proprietary voting machines.

The transparency and security of the Burlington IRV election was a model of good process. Not only were there paper ballots available for an audit (optical scan), but the record of rankings on every ballot was posted to the Internet so that any resident could tally the election themselves if they wished. The tally could be done using the free software that was also posted, or using any spread-sheet software such as Excel using instructions that were also posted.

In conclusion, Burlington's transition to IRV was smooth and quite simple. Both voters and election administrators were happy with the improvement.