Readers of the California Progress Report had the opportunity last week to read an excellent article by John Russo, Oakland City Attorney and recent candidate for State Assembly, describing how Instant Runoff Voting works and arguing that its adoption would constitute a step towards a healthier democracy.
The City of Oakland could be on the verge of taking that step.
IRV’s advocates have been promoting adoption of IRV in Oakland for years, beginning with the voters’ passage of Measure I in 2000 which instructed the city to try new voting methods, such as Instant Runoff Voting, in special elections. Subsequently in 2002 an Election Reform Taskforce advised the use of IRV in all city elections. It hasn’t happened.
At the moment, however, Oakland is as close to IRV implementation as it’s ever been. Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan are sponsoring a Charter Amendment designating that IRV be used for all local elections and asking the City Council to place it on the ballot. But the road to success is a rocky one.
The first stop on the road has been the Rules Committee, where for two weeks the IRV measure stalled. Then, perhaps influenced by severe criticism in the press, committee chair Council President Ignacio De La Fuente changed course and indicated that he would pass it on to the full Council for its consideration on July 18.
The Council will be taking its yearly break soon thereafter, and the deadline to place the measure on this November’s ballot will occur while the Council is away. Therefore next Tuesday’s meeting will be the last opportunity for Councilmembers to vote, on giving Oakland citizens the chance to decide whether they want it, in time for IRV to be used in the November 2008 election.
If IRV passes in November 2006 there will be two years to implement an extensive program of voter education. Such a program may be long overdue.
Although no records are kept as to the number of mistakes voters presently make to produce invalid choices, anecdotal evidence from those who count the ballots indicates that they are very common. The subject-matter of the educational program can be expanded to cover more than just the 1-2-3 of Instant Runoff Voting with groups that need general help in handling voting. Oakland can benefit from the experience of San Francisco, which has recently executed just such an educational program reaching a diversity of ethnic groups speaking a variety of languages.
Many benefits would flow from the passage of IRV.
– Greater turnout. Local elections could be held in November when voter turnout is nearly 60% higher than it is in June when local elections are presently held.
– More representative government. City officials would be chosen by a group much more representative of Oakland’s citizenry than now, because many more minority voters would participate in the election.
– Majority winners. All city officials would be chosen by a majority of the voters; special elections would no longer produce winners garnering as little as 29% of the vote.
– Money- saving for candidates. Community leaders with good ideas and a constituency but without deep pockets could enter races knowing they would have to pay for only one election, not two.
– Shorter campaigns. Voters would not have to endure 10 to 12 months of local campaigning.
– Elimination of spoilers. Voters favoring less known candidates could cast their first choice vote for whom they wanted, without fearing that, by doing so, they would be actually be helping the candidate they least favored.
– Friendlier, more issue-oriented campaigns. Because candidates would want to receive 2nd or 3rd choice votes, talking about issues rather than slinging mud at opponents would be encouraged.
– Money-saving for taxpayers. Oakland would save up to $200,000 for every runoff avoided. After an initial investment to pay for an education campaign and perhaps a share of the costs of new technology, the city would begin to save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If you’d like to see Oakland adopt IRV for its city elections and are an Oakland resident, you can help make it happen.
Joanne McKray is a member of the Oakland IRV Coalition, State Board Member of Common Cause, and active in the League of Women Voters.
For Oakland IRV, contact Judy Cox at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the web at http://OaklandIRV.org. Calls and emails to City Council members are needed now through Tuesday morning.
You may also read Analysis of Oakland Elections:1996-2005 that has more information on IRV and implications for other localities as well.
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