Posted on June 11, 2006If we listed the top three obstacles to meaningful election reform in America, the lack of ranked ballot-friendly voting machines would be among them. Time and again, communities thinking about choice voting and IRV have backed off because their voting equipment was non-supporting. It's been a nasty feedback loop for the democracy movement. Support for reform drops off because of the machines. Vendors don't see a market for compatible machines. More support for reform drops off.
But Alameda County, CA has made a breakthrough. Sequoia, a leading equipment vendor, has promised ranked ballot-compatible machines to the city of Berkeley by 2009 - where they'll be used for single-winner races under instant runoff voting. It'll be the first touchscreen machine in America to support ranked ballots.
While the new Sequoia voting system will not be capable of conducting Instant Runoff Voting in time for the November elections, when the City of Berkeley will be electing Councilmembers, School Board members, and the mayor, the contract calls for the machines to be upgraded to IRV capability by the end of next year.
The Help America Vote Act had compounded the problem, mandating all 50 states spend millions each in an urgent move to electronic equipment. The massive cash outlay would have set voting system reform back an untold number of years. But Alameda Co. is making the move for about $13 million, most of which will be covered by government grants and Diebold's agreement to buy back machines it sold there in 2002. Sequoia will develop IRV-compatible machines for only $350,000.
Most of the cost will be paid by $8.7 million in state and federal grants, plus $3 million that Diebold is paying Alameda County to buy back the 4,300 touch screens that the county purchased in 2002 for $12 million. Those monies will cover all but a fraction of the equipment cost, plus $350,000 that Sequoia wants for developing instant runoff voting for Berkeley and other cities.
The tide is turning in America. With communities across the country getting serious about better voting systems - from Berkeley to Burlington, Minneapolis to San Francisco - equipment manufacturers are learning that they need to bring their products up to date.