Friday, March 31, 2006

Burlington Experience with IRV by Caleb Kleppner

Caleb Kleppner was hired by the city of Burlington, VT to design the instant runoff voting or IRV voter education program, to train pollworkers about IRV, and to train city staff on the software used to tally the IRV election results. He also assisted Director of Elections Jo LaMarche with the design and evaluation of the pre-election logic and accuracy testing of Burlington’s voting equipment.

By way of background, he worked for FairVote – the Center for Voting and Democracy for five years when he was living in San Francisco. In that capacity, he drafted the IRV legislation adopted by the voters in March 2002 and worked with city and state officials in the development, testing and deployment of the optical scan voting equipment used to conduct IRV elections in 2004 and 2005 in San Francisco.

How did Burlington’s first IRV election go?

By all accounts -- my personal observations of the Burlington wards and from the media coverage -- the election went extremely smoothly. Voters didn’t have trouble filling out their ballots, and pollworkers didn’t have problems with the IRV portion of the process. I think you’ll hear testimony from some pollworkers, but the comment that stuck with me was that the people staffing the IRV help desks were bored. The Burlington Free Press headlined their story about the voting, “Burlington Voters Ace Instant Runoff.”

In terms of logistics, polls closed at 7 pm, and we ran the IRV tally and announced the results by 9:05 pm.

Some have speculated that IRV might be too difficult for voters, in particular, too difficult for low income voters. Was it?

Let’s imagine what we would expect to see if the system was confusing for voters and especially low income voters. Then we can see if that happened.

First, we would expect lower voter turnout. In fact, citywide voter turnout was more than 25% higher than any mayoral election since 1999, which is as far back as I was able to go. In the lowest income ward, Ward 3 turnout was 25% higher than the 2003 mayoral election and 72% higher than the 2001 election. Thus, we have no evidence that IRV depressed turnout citywide or in Burlington, nor in low-income neighborhoods.

Second, we would expect more voters to skip over the mayor’s race compared to other races. This year, about 1% of voters skipped over the mayor’s race. In contrast, 2% skipped the mayor’s race in 2001 and 24% skipped it in 2003. In Ward 3, 1% skipped the mayor’s race, the citywide average. In every city council ward, more voters voted in the mayor’s race than in every other race – something that was not true in 2003. In Ward 3, voters were five times more likely to skip the contested city council race, which did not use IRV, than the mayor’s race. Thus there is no evidence that IRV led to more voters skipping the mayor’s race citywide or in low-income areas.

Third, we would expect the rate of invalid ballots to rise. This year, the invalid ballot rate for mayor was one tenth of one per cent, meaning that 99.9% of voters cast a valid vote. I do not have data for past mayoral elections, but I know from national experience that this is an extremely low invalid ballot rate. For example, in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, the overvote rate was around twenty times higher.

In Ward 3, there were exactly two invalid ballots out of nearly 1,200 voters. It’s hard to have a lower rate than that. Again, no evidence that IRV led to increased invalid ballots, nor that voters in Ward 3 were more likely to cast invalid ballots.

Fourth, we would expect voters to forego the opportunity to rank candidates. There were 3 major candidates in this race. Voters ranked on average 2.9 candidates, and in Ward 3 voters ranked 3.1 candidates (highest of all 7 wards). 82% of Burlington voters ranked more than one candidate, and 83% of Ward 3 voters ranked multiple candidates. Thus, no evidence that IRV discouraged voters from ranking multiple candidates, and in fact, Ward 3 voters ranked more candidates than voters in other wards.

Fifth, we would expect large numbers of exhausted ballots, meaning ballots that did not rank one of the top two candidates. Over 89% of all voters and 93% of Ward 3 voters ranked one of the top two candidates. Thus, the vast majority of voters cast a vote that counted in the decisive round of the instant runoff – and those that didn’t were largely Republican voters who quite rationally may have decided to refrain from expressing a preference between the Democrat and the Progressive.

Even though this was the first time Burlington voters voted in an IRV elections, there is no evidence that IRV discouraged voters from participating and there’s no evidence that the system posed any burden for low income voters.

Note that these conclusions mirror what happened in San Francisco, where some people speculated that IRV might be disadvantageous to Asian Americans. Professor Rich DeLeon of San Francisco State University analyzed 18 hypotheses and concluded: “Based on the evidence …, the score is zero for 18” that IRV disadvantages Asian American voters in San Francisco.


The administration of this election was extremely smooth, and voters demonstrated they are perfectly capable of participating effectively in an instant runoff election.

Legal Issues with regards to IRV by Bob Dick

This is an email received by Pierce County Charter Review Commission chair Bertie Enslow with regards to the legality of amending the Charter to use IRV to elect county level officials.

You asked us to respond to questions posed by Commissioner Haughton whether the County Charter may implement provisions that would be different than general state election laws regarding elections of county officials, and adopt instant runoff voting. Commissioner Haughton has not yet provided a draft proposal, but his e-mail suggests that the type of voting which he proposes for inclusion in the County Charter is described in Chapter 29A.53.030 as available in a pilot project in Clark County for the City of Vancouver, if the City Council so chooses.

Under Article XI, Section 4 of the Washington Constitution, it is our opinion that County Charters may include provisions for election of strictly county elected officials which do vary from applicable general law (except for the prosecuting attorney, judges and superintendant of schools). Though Article XI, Section 5 is much more limiting for counties which do not have charters, Article XI, Section 4 specifically provides that for charter counties, the limitations of Section 5 (and other specified sections) do not apply. Accordingly, it is our opinion that for strictly county officers (excluding the prosecuting attorney, judges and superintendant of schools) a Charter may include instant runoff voting, even though it conflicts with general law applicable to all other elective offices.

Our opinion is not a recommendation for such a procedure, and the Commission will want to gather much testimony upon the appropriateness and cost of using such a procedure, before proposing it, particularly where, as here, each election at which IRV could be used will also have on the same ballot the completely different method of electing all of the other elective officials of the state, county and other applicable political subdivisions of the state, unless or until general state law adopts IRV for all races. You will also wish to gather for consideration evidence concerning the ability of the public to select from among a large number of candidates without any winnowing process which primaries provide to reduce the number of candidates which voters must study to a number about which they can gather enough information to make an informed decision. Other issues with which you must wrestle if you consider use of an election device which does not use primaries, is the extent to which it will require candidates to make large media campaign expenditures to help the voting public distinguish them from a large number of other candidates for the same office. Washington election officials may be able to testify about the extent to which IRV would pose cost, confusion, or conflicts with general laws applicable to other races in the same election cycle. Out-of-state election officials who have implemented IRV would also be valuable, if you consider making a change for some offices while contrary laws remain effective for other elective offices.

If it is the desire of the Commission to do so, instant runoff voting using the pilot provisions authorized by state law for use in the City of Vancouver over a 7 year test period can be made applicable by county charter to the strictly county officials about whom Article XI, Section 4 permits county charters to affect elections by means other than general laws, even though those provisions were not intended to apply to county offices under the state law which you would adopt. The effect on county elections and the duration of the authority of such an incorporation would depend upon the language used in adopting those provisions.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Time for a Change

The voters of Pierce County have tried the Montana primary and they don't like it. In 2004, the voters of Pierce County voted 62% in favor of getting rid of the Montana primary.

The replacement for the Montana primary tried in Initiative 872 was the Cajun primary or the top 2 primary. This was ruled unconstitutional by the state courts due to concerns about infringements on the 1st Amendment.

The Pierce County Charter Review Commission has had several people testify on the benefits of shifting the election of county level officials to Ranked Choice Voting rather than the Montana primary. No one has testified on behalf of keeping the Montana primary.

It is time for a change. The voters do not like the current system.