Dear Council: 64,000 voters are the boss of you. You have to do IRV.

I have intentionally not said a word about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) on this blog, because it’s one of those annoying topics, like PRT, that whenever you mention it, zealots on both sides of the issue from all over the country appear out of nowhere and hijack your blog with their never-ending comments of craziness. Alas, the City Council will be voting tonight on whether to implement IRV for this November’s election (PDF), and I’m becoming increasingly concerned that the vote will not go as smoothly as I had hoped.

Here’s the background. Instant Runoff Voting, or, more properly, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), is an election system in which there are no primaries, only a single general election. Under our current municipal system, we have primaries in June, and then if any candidate gets 50% of the vote plus one vote, they win outright and there is no runoff. If nobody reaches that threshold, then there is a runoff and people vote between the two top place primary finishers in the general election in November.

Under IRV, everyone gets elected in November. This is done by having voters rank their first choice, second choice, third choice (and so on) candidates on their ballot. If someone gets 50% of first choice votes, they win. If no one gets 50% of first choice votes, then second choice voters get counted and so on. Becks laid it all out in a blog post earlier this year with a sample ballot and everything.

As far as I’m concerned, IRV is an idiotic system designed to make leftists feel less guilty about voting for fringe candidates. Data collected by IRV advocates, and used to “prove” that IRV is great, shows that the system not understood and disliked (PDF) by minorities, poor people, people who don’t speak English, and people with low educational attainment at rates that should, frankly, horrify anyone who cares even a little bit about equitable voting systems. There are plenty of other ways to have November-only elections and get the voter participation gains IRV advocates are so worked up over without using such a ridiculously complicated system. We could do like some other cities do and just have November elections anyway, and require a lower threshold, like 40% to win outright, and only have run-offs on the rare occasions when nobody manages to beat it. Wev.

In case I haven’t made it clear yet, I hate IRV. I voted against Measure O, the Charter amendment Oakland voters adopted (with 69% approval) in 2006 that says we are going to do our elections using IRV from now on. And I was happy that we weren’t able to do it two years ago because we didn’t have the machines.

But now, we do have the machines. They have been certified by the Secretary of State (PDF), the County ROV is ready to use them, the Secretary of State has outlined the voter education campaign we’re required to conduct before we use them, the City Attorney has issued an opinion (PDF) that says, yes, morons, the Charter mandates that we use them, and all that’s left is the final go-ahead from the Council, which, frankly, should be a formality at this point.

Alas, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case. Over at Living in the O, Becks has posted a letter, sent from District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente to certain community groups, asking them to oppose the adoption of IRV for this year’s Oakland election, because using the system is going to cost us too much money.

IRV supporters have delusionally insisted all along that the system is going to save us all this money. Ooh, big surprise, that’s not true! It’s going to be really expensive to use IRV in the November election (PDF), it’s going to be expensive to educate voters, and since we’re almost definitely going to have some tax measures on the June ballot, we’re not going to realize any savings from not having a June election anyway. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying any attention.

But, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter that IRV sucks and is expensive. Voters voted to do it. The Charter now says we have to do it. That means we have to do it. This isn’t fucking rocket science. We vote on things so that citizens can make decisions. You don’t get to pick and choose which of their decisions you like. Geez.

If we’re not going to follow the Charter and do IRV because it’s expensive, why not just ignore all the other expensive things the Charter mandates too? The Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, a charter-mandated set-aside of a hefty portion of General Funds that go to youth oriented non-profits, is expensive too. Why not just buy ourselves another $12 million by not funding that either? Where does it end?

You don’t get a pass on ignoring voter mandates just because you don’t like them, and you don’t get a pass because you have a budget crisis either, and Oakland residents should contact their Councilmembers today, or come to the meeting tonight (7 PM, City Hall) and let the Council know in no uncertain terms that they expect the City to adopt IRV for this year’s election, as explicitly mandated by the City Charter and Measure O.

Here are the Council e-mail addresses, in case you don’t have them:

Rebecca Kaplan, At-large:; Jane Brunner, District 1:; Pat Kernighan, District 2:; Nancy Nadel, District 3:; Jean Quan, District 4:; Ignacio De La Fuente, District 5:; Desley Brooks, District 6:; Larry Reid, District 7:

Oh, and if you’re curious about why this matters, aside from some abstract commitment to obeying the will of the voters (though that should really be enough), here is a worst-case scenario of what could happen if we don’t do IRV this year. Someone sues us over not doing IRV. This will not stop the June election, because there it’s too late. The June election happens anyway. We lose the lawsuit. Our election is invalidated. We are plunged into constitutional crisis and also have to do another election later with IRV and spend even more money anyway. Yeah, have fun with that!

Hope to see some of you guys at Council tonight!

30 thoughts on “Dear Council: 64,000 voters are the boss of you. You have to do IRV.

  1. Naomi Schiff

    Thank you for the alert. They really have to do this, or become embroiled in a stupid and unnecessarily expensive court battle.

    Dear Councilmembers,

    Please immediately implement the IRV voting systems as approved by the voters of the City of Oakland.

    It may or may not be the ideal system but we voted for it by a very clear majority, and you must implement it or run the risk of embroiling the city in expensive lawsuits, and the risk of undemocratically thwarting the voters’ expressed wishes.

    The delay is already inexcusable. You must not wait any longer. If you don’t like the system after we try it out, you can consider putting a retraction measure on the ballot.

    One of the worst things our city could experience would be a further erosion in people’s faith in city government, and in their trust that elected officials are behaving as their representatives, not as the instruments of others’ desire for influence, power, or financial benefits. Please do not swerve from the course of representing the people who elected you.

    Thank you for all that you do to make our city a better and more democratic place,

    NS (speaking for myself only)

  2. Christopher

    IRV is difficult to explain to voters and does not remove the “less of two evils” voting. IRV still has logical loopholes that allow voters to “game the system” with their ranking order, leading to surprising results.

    A simpler voting system is “Approval Voting”. Rather than ranking candidates, voters simply give a thumbs up or down for each candidate. The candidate with the most thumbs up wins.

    For example, voters in the 2000 presidential election could thumbs up Al Gore and Ralph Nader (or whoever) and thumbs down George Bush. What could be simpler?

  3. Patrick

    Ignoring voter mandates and losing ensuing lawsuits is what our City Council does best. Look at how well they did with Measure Y.

  4. MarleenLee

    Where is the City Council when these things get put on the ballot? If the Council thought IRV was too expensive, or too confusing, or if they thought there was a better, cheaper way to avoid runoff elections, why didn’t they oppose it then? Same for OFCY. Only IDLF’s opposition was documented on the “argument against” for Measure OO. The CC needs to learn its lesson: follow the law. Three of the council members are lawyers: Kaplan, Kernighan and Brunner. They have no excuse. They should all know better. Particularly when the City Attorney puts out such an unambiguous, public legal opinion. Not that any of that stopped them from violating Measure Y. And not that it stops them from continuing to violate Measure Y….

  5. John Klein

    I hope the City Council has enough sense to understand the City will get sued if they don’t approve IRV tonight. A lawsuit, which is bound to win, will simply waste money and time, make the IRV opponents look bad, and strike one more blow to our confidence in them.

  6. Colin

    Guess that makes me a leftist, then.

    I realize you don’t want to get into a IRV debate here, but you opened that can of worms. I’d like to point out that IRV isn’t inherently more expensive, it just is for this election in Oakland because of bad planning and lack of foresight. As with many things that end up being more expensive in Oakland than they should be.

    I’d be the last person to argue that because it works in the abstract it could work here, but the truth is IRV has worked quite well in several places and quite poorly in others. There are potential advantages (not having run-offs save us a lot of money in the long run and only voting once per year often increases participation), but they are not guaranteed to be realized.

    Enough on that, though.

    I’m not sure why you’re citing the report on the SF election as showing “that the system not understood and disliked (PDF) by minorities, poor people, people who don’t speak English, and people with low educational attainment at rates that should, frankly, horrify anyone who cares even a little bit about equitable voting systems.” My reading of the report is VERY different from yours, and the data gathers suggests the exact opposite of what you’re saying.

    The report on the SF election (which had a mediocre education campaign) found that 86% of people understood the system going in and that it worked out well – especially considering it was the first time people had used it. A majority of voters preferred the IRV system, including 19% of those who had opposed it. A majority of those who had no opinion going into the election now prefer it. From the report:

    Results were positive. Among polling place voters, a little over half (52%) said that they understood it “perfectly well.” An additional 35% said they understood it “fairly well.” About one tenth (11%) said they “did not understand it entirely,” and another 3% said they “did not understand it at all.”

    So 3% of the population didn’t understand IRV at all after their first taste of it. For a first election, these are startlingly good results. For any election these are startlingly good. More importantly, that doesn’t say what you suggest it does in your post.

    Opinions of people after having participated in the election were extremely positive, even among minorities. 13% of people who went to polls still prefer runoffs, 11% of those who voted absentee.

    As far as minority problems go, they’re just not that bad compared to general levels of uninformed voting in any election. SF very wisely worked hard to educate the Chinese-speaking community, and as a result 85% knew what they were doing going in. The report does suggest that there was a lower rate of understanding amongst some populations going in (african-american, latino, less than college educated), but I’m not seeing the horrifying results that you suggest are there.

    The main conclusion that the report you cited reaches is that prior understanding is key to how well the IRV system works, but a decent percentage of those who didn’t understand it going in figured it out in the booth (perhaps because it’s not complicated). Responses after having used it were quite favorable, even with those who didn’t know what they were doing going in.

    If you want to suggest that this report says there is massive disenfranchisement and general dislike of IRV, you’re going to have to show me where you’re seeing that.

    I should point out that this is a statistical analysis of a specific city’s election, and shouldn’t be viewed as predictive. Oakland is not San Francisco, and things could go better or worse. It’s also not Ireland or Vermont. The predictive value of a survey like this is pretty insignificant, even if viewing it that way would support my position.

    You also cite the obvious fact that switching voting systems is going to cost money for this election. Well duh. Upgrading equipment costs money in the short run, but in the long run not having 2 elections a year is going to save us money. This is beyond obvious, and ultimately a straw man argument. I haven’t heard anybody say that this will save us money in the short run. Nothing in the link you give suggests that this is what all IRV elections are going to cost in the future.

  7. V Smoothe Post author

    27% of voters who did not complete high school did not understand RCV, 23% of voters whose first language is Spanish did not understand RCV, 23% of African American voters did not understand RCV, 21% of voters earning less than $10,000 a year did not understand RCV. I could go on, but the numbers are all there, people can take from them what they like. IRV advocates use these figures as evidence that IRV is successful. Personally, I do not consider voting systems where understanding is so strongly correlated with education and income fair or Democratic. YMMV.

  8. Naomi Schiff

    The voters voted. The City Council cannot change that without going back to the ballotl If they try to ignore the voters’ will, I’d be happy to contribute to the lawsuit.

  9. Colin

    V, that is most certainly NOT what the report says.

    Those numbers you cite are of people before they voted, saying they did not understand the process before they showed up to their polling place. That does not mean they didn’t figure out how it worked, as the rest of the survey establishes. It also isn’t a static data point: If you asked the same question today, those numbers would be dramatically improved by virtue of those demographic groups having already used it for an election.

    What’s more, since polling was done of voters (both absentee and at polling places), it’s obvious all of those people did successfully vote, although not all of them ranked all of the candidates. To argue that they were excluded from the voting process or disenfranchised is an inaccurate interpretation of the data.

    The more reasonable measure of people’s opinion of IRV is the preference of people after having taken part in this election, and as this study points out, it’s overwhelmingly positive, across all demographics. So I’m not sure where you draw the conclusion that it’s “disliked”.

  10. Ralph

    V, are those percentages you cite taken from people likely to vote?

    A cursory glance of voter turnout would seem to indicate that Oakland averages a turnout of 50% (and that might b generous) of eligible voters. I am excluding the election where we crowned the messiah, where something like 80% turned out.

    If the percentage were for all Oakland voters, who cares, half of them aren’t going to be showing up anyway. Is it too late to reinstitute poll taxes?

  11. Christopher

    But how many voters (or potential voters) actually understand our current voting system?

    I am beginning to think that a poll quiz might be a good idea. Nothing difficult, just hard enough to weed out illiterates or complete idiots. For example, the 2008 election ballot could start with this multiple choice question:

    Q: Who is currently serving as VICE-PRESIDENT of the United States?
    1. George W. Bush
    2. Barrack Obama
    3. Dick Cheney
    4. Sarah Palin

    Sadly, I would bet money that >10% of voters would get that question wrong.

  12. Jenn

    Having voting in San Francisco during IRV’s implementation, I can tell you that they had people at each polling place to explain the system/process as you stood in line waiting to vote. Unless you voted absentee, you basically had a tutorial before casting your ballot.

  13. Jesse

    The implementation may have gone OK in SF, as Jean mentioned. But Colin, if you look at the 2006 RCV Assessment report, it shows LESS People knew about RCV in 2005 than in 2004. Knowledge actually GOT WORSE. It should get better. Why did it get worse?

    But wait, it gets better. The 2008 Grand Jury Report shows that after 4 years and half a dozen or so RCV elections, POLL WORKERS and citizens do not understanding RCV procedures and MORE outreach is needed. They already spent nearly $1million on education and the grand jury report says they need to spend more.

  14. Colin

    The percentages that V cites are of people who had just voted, based on how well they understood RCV before they voted. But they did vote.

    I’m not sure what the “2006 RCV Assessment Report” is, or if it’s specific to SF somehow, but SF has only had 2 elections involving RCV, not the “4 years and half a dozen or so RCV elections” you suggest, so I’m not sure how you can say people knew less about it than they had previously, except in the sense that it was new to them and there’s no reason to assume they’d know a lot about something that up until that point hadn’t mattered to them.

    The first SF election using RCV was in 2007 and involved a few offices (sheriff, mayor, and district attorney). It was an off year election, and they eased the system in slowly (smart move in my opinion). The second was 2008, after this report was issued. The only conclusion in the report you linked to about RCV is “Some pollworkers and voters told the Jury that they did not understand how to vote for candidates where RCV ballots were used.” I think that’s undeniably true, but not in any way conclusive or damning. Please explain to me now you conclude that this is a problem.

  15. OP

    I think that IRV is the law and should be implemented. There will be a lawsuit otherwise, the city will lose, and it will be more costly. I also voted for Measure O, worked on the campaign, and want it to be implemented for non-fiscal policy reasons.

    IRV solves a lot of problems with our current system. First, it solves the problem of non-majority winners in special elections (where we can’t afford runoffs). We’ve had two special elections (since the city replaced appointments with special elections a decade or so ago) and in both cases the “winner” had less than 33% of the vote. That’s not majority-rule, that’s not a voter mandate, and frankly it’s hardly even democracy at that point.

    Second, IRV encourages people to vote more honestly. V describes this as “leftists” being able to feel less guilty voting for fringe candidates. V, I love your blog and your insight, but “whatever” on that one. Is there honestly a person out there who hasn’t really liked a candidate but didn’t vote for them because they weren’t viable? And wasn’t viability not based on ideas but things like ability to raise money or political connections? How crass and how dumb. In the SF poll, nearly 50% of voters said that IRV would cause them to vote more honestly (compared to like 5% who said it would make them less sincere voters). When voting frees people to vote for — concepts of concepts! — people they think would be best for the job, I call that democracy.

    Third, IRV allows greater voter turnout by moving the election in November. Some people seem to think this isn’t important — voter turnout in Oakland is around 60+% higher, on average, in November. Considering local elections are what affects your day-to-day life more than any others, and considering that most Oakland elections currently are decided at the primary, yeah, I think it is a problem that a very small, less representative population is calling all the shotes (ie the really partisan people who show up for primaries; also, a very disproportionately white electorate in a diverse city as ours).

    V argues on this last point that there are better ways of solving this by moving the normal election to November then doing some other reform. Do tell! Adding another runoff in December would be hugely expensive, because it couldn’t be consolidated. Moreover, unconsolidated runoff elections see HUGE drop-offs in voter turnout, which is a “solution” worse than the cure. A 40% voting threshold is a rather feeble solution too, IMHO: 1) if someone gets less than 40% then you have the same December runoff problem; 2) a 40% threshold falls short of our concept of majority rule, and doesn’t solve for spoiler effects in close races.

    Really, the only criticism against IRV is this same “people will be confused” canard that keeps rearing its head. Consistently, in pretty much every city to implement IRV, voter understanding has been at least in the high 80%, and generally in the low 90%s. (This holds true in SF’s ethnicity breakdowns as well.) And, importantly, all these polls are after the first election. As with any new system there is a learning curve, I can’t agree with V that that alone is a reason to stick with the old system.

    Moreover, even if voters are confused as to how the system works, it’s pretty simple to explain how you vote: just rank the candidates. It’s unlikely people will be practically disenfranchised. And let’s be honest here, understanding the counting method for IRV is way easier to understand than explaining how the electoral college (or worse, the Presidential primary) votes are counted… and that system has served us for centuries.

  16. Ralph

    My initial comment was too short, I am writing these words to trick the meter. Colin, thanks. All done.

  17. len raphael

    V has a valid complaint about the cc taking a bunch of time on the cut and dried issues, and tackling the more difficult issues when everyone is tired.

    Most of the IRV portion of the cc members talking sounded like they were practicing to be congressmembers reading into the congressional record. but then there was a turnout of at least a couple of latino and one asian community activist groups with different positions so the cc members tried hard to be all things to all people.

    Reid touched on one of the inherent contradictions in voter turnout, that despitethe hundreds of thousands spent on it statewide, turnout is usually fairly low.

    Me, i’d say it was more an issue of 500 channels and nothing to watch. You can prime the electorate to vote, but if they don’t know didly about the candidates and the issues, why bother to vote?

    Brooks who wasn’t enthusiastic about IRV but knew she had to vote for it, got in a wicked sideswipe at JB, accusing JB’s of “scare tactics” when JB tied the need for a June election to vote on a new “public security parcel tax” to prevent the ‘layoff of 100 cops”

    JB retorted she was just “being realistic”.

    Brought a tear to my eye to hear incumbents like Q and N effuse how IRV would make it easier for grassroots candidates to succeed.

    There’s something about this whole IRV thing that i’m missing: why are community activist groups in poor sections of Oakland so enthusiastic about IRV? IRV would only affect municial office elections? or does it affect a range of other state and county positions?

    -len raphael

  18. Moschops

    Firstly I object to being disenfranchised from voting just because I supporting an ” idiotic system designed to make leftists feel less guilty about voting for fringe candidates”. How many leftists or other fringe candidate supporters are there being disenfranchised? You probably don’t know because they never show up to vote because its not worth it when you only have tweedledum and tweedledee to choose from.

    So what’s the alternative – supporting an idiotic system design to present voters to only two candidates neither of which they want to win but they have to vote for one because “the other guy might win”. Talk about the lessor of two evils. Well at least the status quo gave us Clinton instead of more Bush Senior but it also deprived us of Gore so I’d say that was a net zero. I know there are systems deemed to be fairer but the status quo sucks IMHO.

    Secondly I would like to know how those “understand the voting system” polls would look for the current system – are you assuming that 100% of those demographics you cite would understand that either. Factor in that many people will be afraid to admit they don’t understand voting, but are less afraid to admit they don’t understand something new – that perhaps they have not heard or read about yet but can perhaps figure out easily in the booth – just like those confounded touch screen system).

    Lets face it most people don’t understand things that are new to them until they have had some education or experience but they can learn – do we close the schools because minorities are failing more than others? No we improve them and invest in doing so. Lets dedicate resources to voter education and figure out ways to fund that – if a fraction of the dollars spent on campaigning was funneled towards voter eduction that would be a good thing.

    Most people don’t understand most things in life before they experience them – even the ones that are potentially very beneficial for them. You wouldn’t believe the number of people that don’t understand using BART or the bus going in but figure it out at first, or second try… Communities will adapt, schools can start teaching about IRV and before you know it all the fuss will be forgotten and heck I might even get one of my “fringe” candidates elected.

  19. Moschops

    … continued:

    Thirdly I would like to thank you for supporting the will of the voters and what is in the charter even though it disagrees with your opinion. I hope that you will be pleasantly surprised – even if not on the very first trip of the voters to the ballot box.

  20. len raphael

    Funny watching cc members asking detailed financial questions about IRV and the Fox bailout when for years they approved mult million dollar labor contracts with much less scrutiny.

    Not sure about Kaplan’s proposal to dismantle campaign fund matching for non at large district races, and use for voter education. The way the campaign financing law is written now, it’s window dressing. By the time you’ve met the threshold for matching, it’s too close to the mail in ballot date to make a difference.

    No one questioned why Oakland pays out 800k to run a June election. Ever notice how many election workers are standing around idle especially in districts w high mail in? Do voter workers get paid?

  21. John Klein

    It was interesting to watch the Oakland Builder’s Alliance speakers opposing IRV, led by Carlos Plazola. OBA is a heavy supporter of Don Perata. Most interesting was listening to Mr. Plazola bemoan the ‘politically-charged atmosphere’ and blaming others for it.

    Does he really think nobody notices that it is Mr. Perata and people like himself who are poisoning the political environment by trying to scuttle IRV? I mean, Carlos admitted that he and Mr. De La Fuente have opposed IRV for five years and now they both are trying to stop it – but he blames others for the ‘politically-charged environment’? A fairly shameless, transparent, and absurd complaint, I’d say. Thank goodness they are such a small minority.

  22. JB96

    Glad the council upheld the will of the voters. Glad you stood for that principle too and perhaps will like IRV / Ranked Choice Voting more than you expect. Note that…

    1. Most of these Ranked Choice Voting costs are one-time-only, and if it turns out there’s no June primary, be mostly covered after just one election. Now that the council knows the implications of June ballot measures, can’t it just wait until higher turnout elections in November to hold them?

    2. Not sure what you mean with “There are plenty of other ways to have November-only elections and get the voter participation gains RCV advocates are so worked up over.” The only other way used anywhere in the world is a one-round,. plurality vote election and that can clearly lead to undemocratic results if more than two candidates run.

    3. Your concern about racial minority voters is not borne out by the results of elections. See New America study at

  23. KO - used to vote in SF

    I voted in SF elections using IRV, and I vastly prefer it and did not find it all that complicated. I agree with those who believe that over time, the education costs will go down.

    I also agree that this whole debate is moot. IRV should be a done deal and implemented in November with no further delay.

    The debate amounts to more political wrangling with little public benefit. I believe what’s going on behind the scenes is that a heavy hitter like Perata or other incumbents who might be defending contested seats stand to gain from an earlier June election. What Quan and Nadel are alluding to regarding the benefit to grassroots candidates is the additional time those candidates would have to campaign if the election is in November, and the greater chance they would have if they were able to stack votes as a second choice candidate, which is what happens in caucuses like the much ballyhooed Iowa or Nevada caucuses during the presidential election. Remember, in the mayoral race, Quan is seeking to position herself as the grassroots candidate.

  24. Russell Spitzer

    I’d like to see IRV but I would also support Approval voting. It is considerably more fair than regular runoff voting because it allows voters to express support for more than a single candidate.

    As for disenfranchisement:

    I would like to see a study examining whether the current system has a similar or different disenfranchisement. Because as much as we should be terrified that any system has disenfranchisement we should at least know if it is more or less than what we currently have (Although I also agree with Colin that the study doesn’t necessarily say anything about disenfranchisement.). Has anyone looked to see what the demographics are for secondary runoff elections compared to those in the primaries? Because that would illustrate actual disenfranchisement in the current system which could be measured.

  25. len raphael

    Missed the detail in RK’s funding proposal for IRV education. Did the montclair blog quote her correctly as saying she’d like to see the money that’s now for district council race campaign matching goto non-profits organizations for the voter’s ed?

    Spend the barest min required, and have city employees do it. The concept is simpler than the intricate sports statistics that a large portion of the population keeps in its collective brain. And other than the mayor’s race and the councilmember at large, I don’t see how IRV would have affected any of the other races recently which only had two contenders.

    Inadequate as the matching campaign fund is, it either should be kept as is, or eliminated entirely, not diverted to voter ed.