Island Talkback: For your consideration … ranked choice voting
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By Mark Irons
In a single-seat race with a large field of candidates like our current mayor’s race, it is possible to have a candidate elected by an extreme minority of voters. With four viable candidates, a winner could be declared with just 26 percent of the vote, leaving nearly three-quarters of voters without representation.
The plurality ballot employed for City of Alameda elections happens to be the crudest ballot method available. Plurality sidesteps the expensive and lengthy runoff process, but the outcomes are less democratic.
The very simple solution to the problems of plurality and majority runoff is a Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) system, and specifically, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). These ranked voting methods are not new and have been successfully employed in places like Australia for decades. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters recently adopted this ballot method, which means the county’s voting machines have the capacity to accommodate RCV. The basic IRV will be employed for the first time in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro next month.
By ranking candidate choices in order of preference, if none of the candidates receives a clear majority on the first ballot count, the ranked choices are employed to render a winning candidate with a majority mandate. The mechanism being employed is very simple and the process logical, but to many the concept may seem counter intuitive. The County Registrar has a number of video tutorials available on their website. I discovered these videos on the Oakland blog A Better Oakland, where blogger V. Smoothe gives a comprehensive explanation in addition to other links.
Our presidential races are also by plurality, which in the recent past has allowed both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to be elected without a clear majority vote. The electoral college adds another layer of convolution to that race, but in simplest terms, if IRV had been employed in the 2000 presidential race in Florida, without a 50 percent plus one majority the first-choice votes for Nader would have been discarded as non-viable and the second choice of Nader voters would have been distributed to the two remaining viable candidates, Bush and Gore. The result would have been an “instant” majority and the protracted and controversial Supreme Court ruling avoided.
Filling multiple seats simultaneously, as in our two-seat council race, presents a slightly more complex equation, but RCV again addresses the issue rather neatly. A preferred ranking system in this type of race is called Single Transferable Vote. In this case one’s intuitive resistance is the desire to fill two seats without giving one candidate preference over another, which STV requires, as with all ranking methods.
STV defies simple explanation, but it is a very compelling choice, particularly in races such as this November’s when not just one, but two seated councilpersons vying for mayor present the possibility that a third council seat will need to be filled if either candidate succeeds in being elected mayor.
No matter which candidates are seated in the upcoming election, we should prevail on them to implement more democratic ranked choice voting systems.
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