Monday, December 01, 2008

2008 Pierce County Elections

The Pierce County Elections Department put in a tremendous amount of hard work and ran a high quality election with a complex set of requirements and a high level of turnout.

The complexity of the election came from the large number of races on the ballot, the high turnout, the mix of poll and absentee voting, and the need for new software and hardware to handle the volume. This was also the first general election with two ballot cards and the first ever Top 2 and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) elections.

The first ever RCV races were a great success with many candidates and the voters casting a higher percentage of valid ballots for County Executive than for President. Even so, we have learned how we can improve administration of future elections.

What Went Well

1) Pierce County's Elections Department pushed the required software and hardware through the certification process with the state.

2) Pierce County's voters had no trouble in filling out their ballots.

3) High turnout of voters.

4) Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) saw more candidates per race than the Top 2. In seven county level races this year, there were 22 candidates on the ballot compared to five races with just six candidates in 2006. In the hotly contested County Executive race, voters anticipated a close election and that their vote was important. RCV saw more choice in November for voters.

5) In the RCV races, the Auditor's office published a ballot image file. This is a large step forward in improving the openness and transparency of our elections. The ballot image file is not available in Top 2 races.

Lessons Learned

1) With high turnout elections and lengthy ballots, if you are going to allow voters to vote at the polls, you need to plan your capacity at the polls appropriately or you will end up with long lines. Long lines developed in some in-person polling places. Note that most voters in San Francisco vote on election day at the polls, with RCV elections and several ballot cards and do not have any particular problem with lines.

2) New vote counting software needs to be volume tested before running in a general election. In this election, preliminary results were late in being posted on election night due to software procedures which had not been tested for the volume levels of a general election. Simply following the correct procedures solved the problem.

3) Mail-in ballots take a long time to count regardless of method of election.

4) With a lengthy ballot, down ballot races get less attention. Pierce County should consider shifting its county level elections to odd numbered years to allow voters to give more attention to these races. This has already been proposed and is working its way through the County Council.

5) The Auditor did not consider RCV her "cup of tea." The elections department did an effective job of educating voters about how to fill out their RCV ballots, but should say more about why they should do so. Some voters were confused about why they were making more than one choice in each race and in turn more likely to be confused when the winner in the county executive race was not the candidate who won the most first choices.

6) The survey of voters conducted by the Auditor was problematic for various reasons, including the negative reaction connected with allegations that the survey allowed her to promote her candidacy for County Executive. We recommend a more scientific survey in the future.

7) Voter understanding of the benefits of RCV will increase in the November 2009 special election for Pierce County Auditor.

8) Tabulating RCV results (when the computer has sufficient memory) does not take long. To promote transparency, election officials should tabulate the preliminary RCV results at the end of each day and release them on the same timeline as non-RCV elections. Having to wait a week between releases of preliminary results caused frustration amongst voters and candidates.

The Top 2 experiment

In the Top 2 races, Pierce County saw several races where we had a primary with only one or two candidates on the ballot. In one race, we had two Democrats as the only candidates on the ballot in November. The hotly contested races consisted primarily of negative campaigning.

The parties had no control over which candidates "preferred" their party.

There were no Top 2 races which ended up needing a recount. Some races around the state were close and we did not know the winner until over a week after the election.

A measure to implement the Top 2 system in Oregon failed 34%-66%.

The RCV races

In the county level races, we had more candidates than in recent memory due to the number of open seats and RCV. These candidates all went directly to the general election ballot saving the county the cost of running a primary in these races. This gave more choice to the 81% of voters who voted in November.

The parties controlled who could appear on the ballot with their label. They engaged in different strategies. The Democrats had two candidates on the ballot in two races. The Republicans only put one candidate on the ballot in these races. The Democrats won one of those races and the Republicans won one, so it is not clear which strategy is better.

As in Top 2 races, there are advantages to incumbency. No incumbent lost running for re-election.

As with open seats in down ballot Top 2 races, name recognition is very important in RCV races. While the races for open seats were close in a couple of cases, each open seat was won by the candidate with the most name recognition before the race.

Some voters did not understand why Pierce County had adopted the new system. This was due to the failure of the educational program to describe the benefits of RCV. This educational effort was particularly difficult to do during a Presidential year.

Pierce County made an investment in hardware and software to run the RCV elections. In 2009, since there will be no primary, the special RCV election to choose who fills out the Auditor's term will cost about the same amount as a Top 2 race. Local jurisdictions hoping to use RCV in 2009 would gain the benefit of the investment as well.

Voters in Memphis, Tennessee and Telluride, Colorado passed RCV ballot measures.

State legislators in Oregon have put a bill to give local jurisdictions the option to use RCV in their elections on the legislative docket.


The Pierce County Elections Department did a solid job in a tough environment. With the investments made and the lessons learned, Pierce County is well situated to run elections in a very professional way in the years to come.



Post a Comment

<< Home