Friday, January 30, 2009

Cost Savings in Elections Department

To Pierce County Auditor Jan Shabro

It was exciting to talk about ways to save money versus the budget for the Elections Department in 2009. Right now, the budget for the special Ranked Choice Voting election is about the same as it would be for a special Top 2 election. With one or more of the cost savings measures discussed below, the Elections Department can save money as compared to a Top 2 election.

Since the special election for the Pierce County Auditor position will be a RCV election, there will be no primary and the county will save about $300,000 in the cost allocation from the primary as compared to a Top 2 election. This is already baked into the budget.

If we can get the November election on one ballot card, there will be a significant savings in print, paper and postage costs versus the budget. This represents a challenge, but the potential savings are in the neighborhood of $300,000 as well. National experts on RCV ballot design are willing to help us with the effort. This potential savings deserves a can-do approach to solving the problem.

As you know, the state legislature is considering a bill to close the polls in Pierce County. Closing the polls would save money as well, but would not be popular with some voters.

If the polls remain open, there are cost savings available by getting the poll vote counting machines certified by the Secretary of State. The equipment vendor is on the hook for providing such an improvement. The Auditor's department should be able to get this approval done in time for the November elections.

The current budget allocation for the November elections for the county is roughly the same as it would have been for a Top 2 election. With any of the cost savings measures discussed above, the RCV election will be less expensive than a Top 2 election would have been. This is due to the cost savings associated with folding the primary into the general election. In this time of tight budgets, the Auditor's office should be working hard to reduce these costs.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

League of Women Voters meeting on Ranked Choice Voting

When: February 6, 2009, 6 pm.

Where: Wheelock Student Center Rotunda, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma

Come Be Heard, Ranked Choice Voting, What Do You Think?

Tacoma-Pierce County League of Women Voters presents a Free Public Meeting:

Speakers on Actual Election information, Pro Ranked Choice Voting, Anti Ranked Choice Voting, and You.

It was new. How did it go? What did you learn? What do you think should be different?

You get to listen to the experts, have one minute to state your views or experiences and hear those of everyone else.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Non-partisan Races Sometimes Elect Independents

In the newly non-partisan Assessor-Treasurer race in 2008, outsider Dale Washam was elected. The results of races are affected by the structure of the election. Making the Assessor-Treasurer race non-partisan allowed an independent to compete more effectively.

Below we examine four different structures and what the impact of those structures would have had on the Assessor-Treasurer race. The data used in the analysis was obtained from the Pierce County Auditor's website.

Partisan RCV Winner: Barbara Gelman, Jan Shabro or Terry Lee

In partisan races, RCV rules give the parties the right to determine who is allowed to use their name on the ballot. The Democrats endorsed Gelman and Beverly Davidson in the non-partisan race, so it is reasonable to assume that in the case of a partisan RCV race, they would have allowed the same candidates to use their label. The Republicans would likely have allowed Shabro and/or Lee to use their label on the November ballot. Washam would have had to run as an independent or a third party candidate.

In this scenario, Washam would likely have received about as many votes as Mike Lonergan did in the County Executive race and one of the Democrats or Republicans would have won the race.

Non-partisan RCV Winner: Dale Washam

This is how the race was structured and Washam won.

Non-partisan Top 2 Winner: Dale Washam

In the November election, Dale Washam and Terry Lee had the two highest first choice totals. If there had been an August primary, these two candidates would have made it through to the November general election.

During the actual race, neither Washam nor Lee campaigned much for the position other than putting in their candidate statements and asking the News Tribune for their endorsement, which Lee received. The data shows Washam would have beaten Lee in the non-partisan Top 2 general election.

Partisan Top 2 Winner: ???

In the Top 2 system, candidates can prefer to be "Democrat" or "Republican" without the permission of the party. In this environment, Gelman and Davidson would have preferred the Democrats while Shabro and Lee would have preferred the Republican party. Washam and Bernardo Tuma would probably have picked parties as well. It is really not clear what would have happened in this environment. The winner could have been Gelman, Lee, Shabro or Washam. It is quite difficult to tell from the data we have.


Whether a race is partisan vs. non-partisan has more impact on the outcome of a race than Top 2 vs. RCV. In a partisan RCV race, Washam clearly would not have won. In any non-partisan race, Washam would have won.

For analysis of the impact of election structure on voter turnout, see here.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Pelz's Misunderstandings

By Richard Anderson-Connolly

Dwight Pelz, the chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, made a number of statements about Ranked Choice Voting when he was in town campaigning for re-election last Thursday, January 8th. His opposition to RCV, like that of many other Democratic officials, is based upon a number of misunderstandings.

Pelz claimed the following:
(1) RCV is an attack on parties;
(2) RCV is elitist because it requires that voters understand the candidates before voting;
(3) RCV is promoted by those who want to see less voter participation.

All three statements are incorrect.

First, instead of attacking parties, RCV gives the parties in Pierce County stronger First Amendment associational rights than the parties have under the Top 2 system. The Ranked Choice Voting system eliminates the primary election and permits all qualified candidates - those who live in the jurisdiction, pay the filing fee, and gather the required number of signatures - to appear on the general election ballot.

The ability of any candidate to use a party label is completely under the control of the county party under the RCV system. The Pierce County Democrat Party could decide to let anybody use its label or could hold a caucus to select its nominees or could run a mail-in primary or could adopt any other mechanism it chooses. Furthermore the party can nominate one person per office or multiple candidates. It would be difficult to design any system that better protects the associational rights of parties than RCV in Pierce County.

Not only is the first claim incorrect but also inconsistent with the party's legal challenge to the Top-2 primary. The Top-2 clearly weakens the parties' associational rights. Yet Pelz and some other Democrats believe in repealing RCV in order to return Pierce County to the Top-2. Or are they playing a deeper strategy where they believe the courts will throw out the Top-2 and restore the Pick-a-Party primary? In this case not only is his attack on RCV dishonest but also quite risky.

Secondly, Pelz claimed that RCV is elitist because it forces voters to know about the candidates in order to vote. He suggested that both younger and older voters might not be up to the challenge. While it's certainly true that most RCV advocates would prefer that voters be fully informed about the candidates, the reason that the voter education is a bigger problem for RCV or the reason it's elitist is not clear.

Perhaps Pelz believes that the option to rank up to three candidates is too difficult. Yet no data support this claim. In fact we know the opposite to be true. Voters report that they understand the way to vote using RCV. Voting under RCV does not differ very much from first voting in the primary and then voting in a general election; that's why it's also called instant runoff voting. If a top choice in the primary is not in the general election then most voters go with another candidate. Not too difficult.

Isn't it far more elitist to claim that voters are not smart enough to rank a second and third choice, if they want to use them? If voters are not smart enough to vote using RCV, then they're probably not smart enough to vote under any system, which means that democracy doesn't work. I don't think Pelz believes this. Certainly advocates of RCV believe that democracy works. It doesn't mean that voters never make a bad choice, but simply that a representative democracy tends to be better than any other political system.

Pelz's third reason for opposing RCV is his allegation that RCV is promoted by people who think that 65% turnout is too high and want to reduce it. Pelz could not be more wrong. Indeed, increased participation is one of the goals held by those who support RCV. The League of Women Voters, whose reason for existence is increased voter participation, supports Ranked Choice Voting. FairVote, a national organization which promotes RCV, has a broader agenda of electoral reform, including a right to vote initiative and the national popular vote for the president, all of which encourage greater participation by the electorate.

The fact is RCV elections have greater participation than plurality elections. First, RCV consolidates the low-turnout primary into the high-turnout general election. By advocating the repeal of RCV and the return of the Top-2, Pelz and other Democrats are in effect promoting lower participation by giving the important task of selecting just two general election candidates to the minority of the electorate who participate in the August primary. Second, voter participation is positively related to the competitiveness of elections. RCV races, like that for the Pierce County Executive, are not capped at only two candidates. In a race with three, four, or more strong candidates voters are more likely to find a candidate they strongly prefer.

I certainly hope that the chair of my party is willing to reconsider his opposition to RCV based on the the logic and evidence behind the arguments. Nothing he presented supports repeal of RCV and the return of the Top-2. Quite the contrary. RCV is better for the party. It is elitist to assume that workers can't handle it. And participation is higher under RCV than the Top-2.

The leaders of the Democratic Party in Washington and Pierce County should reflect upon the example set by more progressive Democrats and get behind the electoral reform movement. Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich have strongly endorsed RCV. Barack Obama was the prime sponsor of a bill to implement RCV in Illinois when he was a State Senator. Ultimately, if the leaders of the party refuse to support electoral reforms, the rank-and-file members of the Democratic party should step forward and set a progressive agenda.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Voter Participation in Pierce County

Total voter turnout in Pierce County was very high in 2008 due to the presence of Barack Obama on the ballot. Partisan races had higher voter participation than non-partisan races. Contested races had higher voter participation than uncontested races. Since there were no uncontested Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) races, voter participation in partisan county level races increased from 2004 to 2008.

Partisan versus non-partisan races

In Pierce County, every statewide partisan race had higher voter participation than every statewide non-partisan race. At the county level, every partisan race had higher voter participation than every non-partisan race. This was particularly evident in the Assessor-Treasurer race which shifted from being partisan to non-partisan between 2004 and 2008. In the 2008 Assessor-Treasurer race, voter participation fell to a level between the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the judicial races.

It appears as if there are voters who will vote for a candidate simply based on the partisan affliation and who skip non-partisan races where they don't know the candidates.

Number of Candidates

In November 2004, there were five State Representative elections and two County Council elections in Pierce County which had just one candidate on the ballot. In November 2008, all of these races had two or three candidates on the November ballot. All of these races experienced significant increases in voter participation. This is not surprising since many voters skip uncontested races with just one candidate on the ballot.

In the 26th State Legislative District, there were three candidates on the ballot in each State Representative race in 2004. In 2008, there were only two candidates on the November ballot. Undervotes increased in these races.

In most of the statewide races, we saw an increase in undervotes from 2004 to 2008. We also saw most statewide and countywide races increase turnout as measured by percent of registered voters, but decrease as a percent of the presidential vote. One reason for this is the significant number of voters who just voted for President in 2008.

Another reason is the move to the Top 2 which restricts the numbers of candidates on the ballot in November. In 2004, there were at least three candidates on the ballot in most races. This appears to have allowed more voters to express their views.

Since there were no uncontested partisan RCV races, on average those partisan county level races moving to RCV experienced an increase in voter participation.


Voter participation is heavily driven by the excitement of a Presidential race. Down ballot partisan races experience higher voter participation than down ballot non-partisan races. Uncontested races generally do not experience high voter turnout. RCV generally has more candidates and fewer uncontested races. Eliminating the partisan/non-partisan and uncontested race effects, there was little difference in voter turnout between Top 2 and RCV elections in 2008.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

RCV Cost Less than Top 2 in 2009

In 2009, Pierce County will hold a special election to fill out the remainder of the Auditor's term. The election will be a Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) election. This RCV election will cost less than electing the Auditor using the Top 2 system.

Why? RCV folds the primary and general election in one election and a redundant Top 2primary would cost the county $250,000-300,000. The Top 2 system requires a separate primary and the county would bear these costs. The costs of the separate election will be borne by the local jurisdictions who are being forced to use the old system of electing their officials.

Former Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy has talked widely about the start-up costs associated with RCV. No one has talked about the long term benefits of this investment.

Pierce County will no longer have to pay for separate primaries. The software keeps running. Procedures will be improved as the staff gains experience with the system. Voters end up with a more open and transparent system due to the publishing of the ballot image file on the web.

In some ways, the expenses of the RCV software are similar to the expenses of implementing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The voting experience is improved in the long term as a result of an upfront investment in equipment and software.


Monday, January 05, 2009

Vacancies in the Top 2

The Tacoma News Tribune notes that with the death of some state legislators another weakness of the Top 2 system has come forth. Since parties do not nominate candidates in the Top 2 system, what happens in the event of a vacancy?

Under the pick-a-party system, the blanket primary or Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), filling a vacancy in a partisan position is a straightforward process where the party of the incumbent nominates three people to fill the position. Under the Top 2 system, since the parties do not have control over who appears on the ballot "preferring" their party, does an elected official necessarily belong to the party they "prefer?"

Democratic State Party Chair Dwight Pelz has been suing the state over the Top 2 system for years now. One of his complaints against the system is the inability of the party to control the use of its name. The right of the party to affliate with some candidates and not with others has been rejected by the Supreme Court.

In the Top 2 system, we have situations such as the 36th State Legislative District, where the candidate favored by the Democratic Party (John Burbank) lost to the candidate (Reuven Caryle) who "prefers" the Democratic Party. What would happen if Caryle died? Who would be able to nominate his successor? The situation with vacancies may well give the parties an opportunity to overturn the Top 2 in the courts.

Pelz and Mark Hintz, the other candidate for State Chair of the Democratic Party, will be in Pierce County on January 8 to promote their candidacies. Pelz's record includes a longtime and ongoing effort to overturn the Top 2 system since it weakens the power of the parties.

Pierce County Chair Nathe Lawver has attacked RCV because it gives the parties the power to decide which candidates may use their name. He has stated this gives the parties too much power even though he has the authority to allow anyone who wants to run as a Democrat the ability to do so.

The contrast between Lawver and Pelz on this issue is interesting. Of course, it could all be explained by the possibility that both of them prefer the pick-a-party primary to either the Top 2 or RCV.

Certainly, people who oppose both the Top 2 and RCV are implicitly favoring the pick-a-party primary. Let's hope someone asks Pelz and Lawver if they oppose both the Top 2 and RCV, so that we can see their true stripes.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Let's learn from Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County

By Sen. Eric Oemig (D-Kirkland)

Elections in Washington state tend to serve up a good dose of rancor, confusion and frustration. And not just from the candidates. The way we vote usually stirs commotion all by itself.

Remember February's nearly worthless presidential primary? If you voted for a Democrat your vote counted for zilch because the party ignored the primary in its nominating process. And Republicans used the primary to allocate only half of their delegates to their convention.

Our state's primary system has long been a source of controversy. Here's a fun fact. Only a quarter of the legislative races on this year's "top two" primary ballot even fielded more than two names to begin with. It makes you wonder why we spend millions staging a primary in the first place.

And that's why it's worth taking a closer look at Pierce County's first crack at using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in its general election county races. In these few races there was no primary. Each candidate's name appeared on an RCV ballot at the general election and voters ranked them by preference to produce a winner.

No doubt, there are legitimate questions to be asked about why it cost so much to implement. And, more importantly, changes must be made to simplify the RCV ballot. For instance, if there is only one candidate, you should not be required to rank him three times. (That foolish source of confusion was an artifact of using an out-of-state vendor who was unwilling to print a better ballot. For instance, if fewer than three candidates are on the ballot, a standard ballot card should be used.)

But let's remember that change — even good change — can be uncomfortable at first. Moreover, these growing pains are no cause for scrapping Ranked Choice Voting after just one election.

Let's remember why it was tried in Pierce County to begin with — because voters asked for.

And though some voters have expressed frustration, the RCV election was well executed. RCV is not slower to tabulate than standard voting. In close elections, with mail-in ballots, the lead will switch back and forth, and sometimes the winner will take days or weeks to determine. Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy recently testified before the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee and called the election "an amazing success."

Why? Because overwhelmingly, voters understood their RCV ballot and the processes to run the election worked as designed. What's more, voters had more meaningful choices, candidates waged more positive campaigns and the cost to taxpayers was the same as the top two primary. Those are benefits worth keeping.

RCV version one was a success worth building upon. A study of the Pierce County experience is being conducted by the University of Washington and Western Washington University and we'll know the results soon.

We need to keep and improve on Ranked Choice Voting if we are to hone in on the best system for voters and democracy.