Monday, February 16, 2009

Pierce County should let ranked-choice voting stand

There have been a series of media pieces about the proposed charter amendment to repeal Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County. Today, the Seattle Times editorial opines that Pierce County should let Ranked Choice Voting stand.

"The Pierce County Council should stop trying to kill its constituents' chosen election system, ranked-choice voting. Voters embraced ranked-choice voting by a vote and then rejected a subsequent attempt to kill it. Let the voters have their way."

In addition, the League of Women Voters in Tacoma-Pierce County opined in favor of keeping RCV. The Daily Weekly and KUOW also had pieces on the controversy.

Much of the coverage suggests that RCV should be kept to improve voter choice. Of course, many of the opponents assert that voters are confused by "too many candidates on the ballot". This "too many candidates on the ballot" argument is primarily put forth by establishment politicians who want to discourage voter choice.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

League of Women Voters supports Ranked Choice Voting

by Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, President of the League of Women Voters of Tacoma/Pierce County

The League of Women Voters first discussed Ranked Choice Voting, or Instant Runoff Voting, about seven years ago, in a study of election methods. As a result of that study, the League of Women Voters of Washington added, "Action to support a majority vote requirement if achieved through a mechanism such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)," to its position on Representative Government.

Therefore, the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County was interested when IRV was brought up, first as a possibility for Tacoma, and then as a possibility and reality for Pierce County. We participated in many candidates forums this year, and explained both the voting and the counting at these forums.

What do we perceive as the advantages? It ensures that someone will win with a majority of the votes.
It eliminates the primary, which gets minimal voter participation. All the candidates are on the general election ballot, which gets them more publicity and, because of higher voter turnout, allows more people to be involved in the actual choosing of the winner. It allows more people to run. Rarely can a person not from one of the two major parties get on the general election ballot, ESPECIALLY with a top-two primary. It allows you to vote for the person you really want to have win, even if this person is not likely to. Rather than not getting to vote for such a candidate, because then your vote really doesn't seem to count, you can vote for that person as your first choice - and still vote for a second choice who is the candidate you prefer from the more-likely winners.

It is unfortunate that people think RCV is difficult. The counting is complicated, and without computers would be horrifying, but we do have computers, and they can run the necessary recounts quickly and easily. The voting, we say, is as easy as 1 -2 - 3. Who's your first choice? Who's your second choice? Who's your third choice?

People who attended candidate and ballot issues forums this year were asked to vote on names for the bridges across the Tacoma Narrows. These were tabulated at each forum, and all were saved and tabulated after our last forum. (Narrows East and Narrows West were the ultimate winners, with Gertie and Gordy coming in second.)

Many did not know much about Ranked Choice Voting. They thought it was really complicated, until they got to do a sample vote. The actual ballot was also very straightforward, with clear directions. The touchscreen voting machines worked well, putting a 1 next to the first name touched, a 2 next to the second, and a 3 next to the third.

Australia loves this. San Francisco loves it. Maybe, we can grow to love it also. Many many people voted this year. Pierce County didn't do such a great job of getting ballots counted fast in previous years, with lower voter turnout and without ranked choice voting. The Pierce County Elections Department had a lot to deal with this year. They have certainly been learning from the process and will have had this experience to use the next time we use ranked choice voting. Do not, please, ask that there not be a next time.

The voters chose this. The voters have now gotten to use it. Give it a chance.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ranked Choice Voting in Vermont

February 12, 2009

Terry Bouricius is a former city councilor and state legislator from Vermont

Terry Bouricius, Fair Vote - Here in Burlington, the second mayoral election using instant runoff voting is less than three weeks away. There is a spirited campaign with five candidates, four of whom are seen as having a serious chance of winning.

The incumbent mayor from the Progressive Party, Bob Kiss, is running for re-election. His opponents are the current president of the city council, Republican Kurt Wright, Democratic councilor Andy Montroll (a past city council president), Dan Smith, an independent whose father was a Republican Member of Congress and who is running as a "post-partisan" "entrepreneurial" candidate, and a political novice, Green Party candidate James Simpson.

Under the old city charter, Burlington would likely be looking at a runoff election a few weeks later (with the desperate flurry of campaign fund-raising, mud-slinging, and added tax-payer expense that generally entails). However, with the ranked-choice ballot, Burlington will finish its mayoral election on March 3.

With plurality elections, candidates on the same side of the political spectrum, who appeal to the same slice of the electorate, often seek to demonize each other. Again, this dynamic is absent under IRV.

Because candidates know they may need the second choices from voters who support other candidates as their top pick, the campaigns are remaining civil, and attempting to reach out to a broader constituency, than would be typical in a plurality election. A door-knocker for one of the campaigns recently knocked on our door, and had a conversation with my wife. When told that we were supporting one of the other candidates, this campaign worker said, "I can see that your mind is made up, but I hope you'll look over this leaflet and consider giving my guy your second choice."

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Ranked Choice Voting on Ballot Again in Pierce County

This is a piece by Krist Novoselic which appeared in the Daily Weekly.

The Pierce County Council has put Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) on the ballot with the intention that voters will approve its repeal.

I defended the system on KUOW this morning.

In the same radio interview, Pierce County auditor Jan Shabro complained about the extra work and cost of Ranked Choice. At first blush, this might be a concern to taxpayers. However, Ms. Shabro failed to mention the cost of the extra ballot for the August Top-Two primary election.

But these are the status quo talking points - RCV is expensive.

It could be a fair proposition to put this election reform in front of voters again if there were a reasonable assessment before hand. But Pierce County political insiders rushed RCV on the ballot even though there's a credible study of the system in progress. There also needs to be an objective fiscal audit of RCV in comparison with Top-Two elections.

Like I say in the interview - elected leadership hope RCV will wither on the vine. Lawmakers like no-contest or uncontested elections. Competitive elections are a threat to politics-as-usual.

The Seattle Times Ed cetera Blog has another piece on the repeal effort.

RCV, also known as Instant Runoff Voting is in the Los Angeles Times.

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Pierce County Voting System Under Fire

This is a piece from KUOW's website.

Pierce County voters approved the use of ranked–choice voting in 2006. It was seen as a victory for progressives and as an interesting experiment. But the Pierce County Council is now asking voters whether they want to pull the plug. The council voted this week to let voters choose whether to do away with the system.

Instant runoff voting, or ranked–choice voting as it's also called, gained some popularity in the wake of Ralph Nader's third party candidacy in 2000. It was seen as an alternative to "spoilers" and "wasted votes" because voters can list their first, second and third choices. If their first choice — perhaps a third–party candidate — loses, then their vote goes to their second choice candidate.

Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic now chairs the organization FairVote, which advocates ranked–choice voting around the country. He says the system leads to more people running, and more issue–oriented elections. But he says Pierce County politicians seem threatened by the change.

Novoselic: "There's no leadership at all with ranked choice voting in Washington state; I don't know any lawmakers who are coming out and defending it, so it's kind of like, 'let it wither on the vine.'"

He says politicians should defend the system and iron out the wrinkles. Meanwhile, Pierce County administrators say the new system has been a headache.

Shabro: "Last year, it just about doubled our election costs to have it in the general election. We had to have two separate ballots which in itself causes an increase in postage."

That's Pierce County Auditor Jan Shabro. The county issued one ballot for the races using ranked choice voting, and one for the rest. That added $1 million to election expenses, apart from one–time costs. And officials say the majority of comments from voters have been negative, that it's confusing. But advocates say ranked–choice voting gave voters more choices, for example in the race for Pierce County Executive.

Richard Anderson–Connolly is a professor at the University of Puget Sound. He says voters can choose who they want, instead of the lesser of two evils.

Anderson–Connolly: "Four strong candidates, no spoilers, no vote splitting even though there were two Democrats. In the early rounds, those votes went to their first choices but then they came back together in the later rounds. And you did it all in one election, you didn't have to go through weeding out some people in August."

Anderson–Connolly says most voters aren't paying attention to the August primary, so it's better to just have all the candidates on the November ballot. That's how ranked choice voting works. He predicts a vigorous campaign before Pierce County voters pass judgment on the new system this November.

Amy Radil, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2009, KUOW


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Seattle Times blasts Pierce County Council

In an editorial on the Pierce County establishment's decision to put Ranked Choice Voting on the ballot for possible repeal, the Seattle Times takes exception to the County Council's decision.

"The Pierce County Council's charter amendment to repeal ranked choice voting is an insult to the voters who chose the system in 2006. According to the Tacoma News Tribune the council voted 6-1 to abolish ranked choice voting. The council's action sends ranked choice voting back to the voters in November.

The system was implemented this past year and seemed to work. The council should give the system at least a couple voting cycles. If ranked choice is not working in a few years then send it back to the voters.

What is ranked choice voting? The system, also called instant runoff voting or IRV, allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. Candidates only win when they get a majority of first-choice votes. A run-off is triggered when nobody achieves a majority. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the voters second and third place votes are tabulated. This continues until somebody gets a majority.

It sounds confusing but is rather simple. Check out this animated demonstration at FairVote. (Note the pictures of David Hasselhoff and Condoleezza Rice in the background. Funny).

The system has the added bonus of eliminating the primary. A good thing for cash-strapped counties. That should be incentive for the council to keep ranked choice. Problem is that politicians tend to not like the system because it takes some control away from the parties, which I wrote about during the campaign for ranked choice.

In an e-mail Richard Anderson-Connolly, a University of Puget Sound professor who lead the ranked choice campaign, said the Republican and Democratic parties are trying to ditch the system:

This is the predictable backlash of the two parties when faced with the prospect of voters having more choice. Of course this is not what they will say in public, at least not many of them.

Anderson-Connolly said that proponents will run a "vigorous" no campaign. Good. The voters should rebuke the council and give ranked choice a chance."


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dick Muri: No on Repeal

In the comments below, County Councilmember Dick Muri describes why he voted No on putting the repeal of Ranked Choice Voting on the ballot again.

Interestingly, Instant Run Off Voting is actually the base methodology used by the political parties to decide delegates, county chairs, state chairs and national chairs. The parties use Run-off Voting because they have a manageable amount of voters (less than 1,000). The parties do consecutive multiple elections with criteria on eliminating those who do not receive enough votes to be in contention. Thus if your first choice is eliminated, you can then vote for second choice then third choice, etc. The thus do multiple elections in one afternoon and eliminate people along the way. So it is the method of choice among the political parties to get a consensus candidate and not have a spoiler effect, so it’s interesting that the preferred method is now our method, and I think we should keep it.

It is my opinion, 2008 IRV/RCV went well except for a few needed areas of improvement. County auditor counting procedures because of software and computing power requirements and other small things that have now been improved and will allow for, hopefully, daily reporting of the results. And we did have some problems at the polling places due to large turnout—a few less polling places, and now where we live, the new federal law allows the military to register to vote, and vote on the day of the election—and literally, I think there was close to 1,000 people who registered that day and voted that day, and that also made a lot more work for the polling sites because those were all provisional ballots.

Then the other question is – the Top-2 Primary—because people are saying we like the Top-2 Primary, well that’s still in doubt. There’s still lawsuits and negotiations going on and it’s interesting that it might be resolved before this November election and we might see that we have Pick-a-Party Primary again, and then people may, if this charter amendment proposal does pass today, they’ll hopefully be voting ‘no’ on Charter Amendment number 3.

Also, to answer Mr. Paulson’s question about the cost of the election, there is already going to be a County-wide ballot in November because we do have two other charter amendments that have already been approved.

I plan to vote no on this Charter Amendment because I think it’s a good system, and I’d like to see it get one more shot at it and see how it works. If it doesn’t work this November, then I’ll be right with you all in 2010 to put this amendment on the ballot.


Ranked Choice Voting and the 2000 election

In the 2000 elections, the voters of Pierce County voted in three momentous races in which the winner received less than a majority of the votes. These elections changed the course of history, and are viewed by many as unfair outcomes. From this election came an increased drive to reform our election system to be more fair, to be more inclusive and to inspire more debate of the issues. This eventually led to the adoption of Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County and other places around the US.

In 2000, the Presidential election was very close. The winner was going to be settled by who won the electoral votes of Florida. After an extended period of time, it was determined that George Bush received a few more votes than Al Gore in Florida and Bush won the election.

Ralph Nader received far more votes than the difference between Bush and Gore in Florida. Many Democrats believe Nader cost Gore the election. To many Democrats, Nader was a spoiler and votes for Nader were wasted votes. In subsequent elections, Democrats actively sought to discourage Nader from running.

In 2000, the candidates for the US Senate seat in the state of Washington were Democrat Maria Cantwell, incumbent Republican Slade Gorton and Libertarian Jeff Jared. Cantwell won with 48.7% (less than a majority of the votes). Cantwell became the 50th Democratic Senator and thus affected the balance of power in the US Senate.

Slade Gorton believes Jared's candidacy cost him his job. Many Republicans view the Libertarians as spoilers within the current election system. Republicans actively discourage Libertarians from running in races due to concerns about the spoiler effect.

In 2000, the candidates for the 25 District State Senate seat in the Puyallup area were Democrat Jim Kastama, Republican Joyce McDonald and Libertarian Jerry Christensen. Kastama won with 49.1% of the vote. Kastama became the 25th Democrat in the State Senate and shifted the balance of power to the Democrats in that body.

McDonald was quoted at the time as saying Christensen had cost her the race. She has said if the 2000 race had been Ranked Choice Voting, she probably would have won and still be in the State Senate.

Observing these results, it is easy to conclude that our system of plurality voting is unfair to candidates and voters. We should have a system which leads to majority winners. We should have a system which encourages more rather than fewer candidates. Voters deserve more choice, but without having to be concerned about wasting their vote.

Ranked Choice Voting encourages voters to vote honestly about who their first choice is and to continue telling us about their second and third choices. It allows the Nader voters to tell us who their second choice is. It allows Jared voters to tell us who their second choice is. It allows Christensen voters to tell us who their second choice is. And, if their candidate is eliminated, their second choice can have an impact on the eventual winner. Their vote will not be wasted. Their candidate will not be a spoiler.

In the 2008 Pierce County Executive race, we saw four candidates. Mike Lonergan, the third party candidate, was not considered a spoiler. Most Democrats listed Pat McCarthy and Calvin Goings as their first two choices. The debates were lively and filled with discussion of the issues.

While several of the RCV races were easy to call on election night (e.g. Sheriff), the County Executive race was too close to call. However, we have an Executive winner long before the yet-to-be-determined US Senate race in Minnesota, where the winner will have about 42% of the vote. The US Senate race in Minnesota is a good example of the problems of our current system and why we need to keep Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County.

I urge you to vote No on the repeal of RCV in Pierce County. This election reform leads to a healthier democracy.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Openness and Transparency in Voting

To Jan Shabro:

Congratulations on your appointment to be Pierce County Auditor.

In your interview for the Auditor's job before the County Council, you talked about the importance of openness and transparency in public service. I share your enthusiasm for these virtues.

Pierce County has an unique feature of its elections department which moves the county government in the direction of openness and transparency. In this past election, the Auditor's office published on its website a ballot image report on the county level elections in Pierce County.

The report shows how each ballot was cast in each race and allows people from outside the elections department to replicate the vote totals. The check of the vote counting is a big step forward in openness and transparency of our elections process. Used properly, the ballot image report allows for a more efficient audit of each election and would help avoid the problems we had in the 2004 Governor's election.

The ballot image report is an improvement which we do not want to lose. Currently, the ballot image report is only available on Ranked Choice Voting elections. One of the considerable benefits of keeping Ranked Choice Voting would be to keep the openness and transparency of the ballot image report. I encourage you to support Ranked Choice Voting as a step towards openness and transparency.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Vetting and Party Labels

At last night's League of Women Voters' forum on Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) at the University of Puget Sound, there were comments made about the vetting of candidates by the parties and the value of such vetting. Some people seemed confused about what rights the parties have under the various elections systems we have.

In a partisan RCV race, the parties have the right to determine which candidates can use the party name on the ballot. In a partisan Top 2 race, the parties have no control over which candidates use their name on the ballot.

In the 2008 partisan RCV Pierce County Executive race, Pat McCarthy and Calvin Goings received permission from the Pierce County Democrats to run as Democrats. No other candidates appeared on the ballot as Democrats.

Shawn Bunney received permission to run as a Republican, but Mike Lonergan who also sought to run as a Republican was turned down at the County Convention. Bunney was the only candidate labelled a Republican on the ballot. This was the Republican vetting of the candidates. Now, Lonergan was able to run as a third party candidate, but he was not able to use the Republican label.

If the race had been a partisan Top 2 race, then Lonergan could have simply filed as "prefers Republican" and the Republican Party would have had no opportunity to vet him.

In a Top 2 race for State Legislature (36th District, Position 1), John Burbank was nominated by the Democratic Party, but Reuven Carlyle ran as "prefers Democratic Party." Carlyle won the race. If Carlyle leaves office before the end of his term, the Democrats do not even have the right to replace him since he was not their nominee.

Bottom line: If you want the parties to be able to vet the candidates, then RCV works and the Top 2 does not.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Andrew Bacon Letter to Pierce County Council

Greetings to my friends on the Pierce County Council, and think you for all your hard work and service to our county.

I'm writing today in support of Ranked Choice Voting. I support Ranked Choice Voting for the following reasons:

· Ranked Choice Voting more accurately reflects the will of the voting citizens of the county.

· Ranked Choice Voting allows for a wider variety of candidates, since no one candidate can be considered a "spoiler".

· Ranked Choice Voting eliminates the need for a separate runoff election, should a plurality not be sufficient for the particular office at question, now or in the future.

· Ranked Choice Voting achieves the same goal as holding runoff elections, while eliminating the additional costs associated with repeated balloting.

· Ranked Choice Voting has twice been approved by the citizens of Pierce County.

I very much appreciate your consideration, and of course am available to any council or council staff member who might wish to discuss the matter. Please feel free to contact me using the information below at your convenience.

Thank you,

Andrew Bacon

CEO . General Manager

The Information Technology Consultancy

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Test raises caution flag on 'top two' primary

By Steven Hill
This article was published in the Sacramento Bee.

With the state government lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis, many frustrated Californians are thinking about what political reforms might make the state Legislature more functional.

Californians passed Proposition 11, but the impact of the independent redistricting commission won't be felt until the 2012 elections. With Californians still seemingly hungry for reform, what other changes might clean up the mess in Sacramento? One of the proposals being discussed in various circles is what is known as the "top two" primary. Under that method, the nominees from all political parties, including multiple candidates from the same party, compete against each other in a single primary free-for-all, reminiscent of California's short-lived use of the popular "blanket primary" back in the mid-1990s (which was done away with as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling).

But unlike the blanket primary, which advanced to the November election the primary winner for every political party, resulting in a multicandidate field, the top two primary advances only the top two finishers.

And those two final candidates can even be from the same political party. The top two primary was rejected by California voters in 2004, but proponents are trying to revive it, saying that the top two primary will:

• Give voters more choice.

• Create more competition.

• Elect more moderate legislators.

• Get rid of spoiler candidates and elect majority winners.

Let's examine each of these claims. Certainly, the top two primary would give voters more choice during the primary election. But it actually would reduce voters' choices in the November election to only two candidates, which is when most voters turn out. Moreover, in a very liberal district, such as in the urban areas, the top two candidates in November very likely would be two Democrats; in a conservative district, the top two probably would be Republicans. Third-party candidates and independents almost never would appear on the November ballot.

Would the top two primary foster more competitive races? To answer that question, I examined elections from the state of Washington, which used the top two primary for its 2008 state legislative elections. Here's what I found:

Of the 98 state House races, only five races (5 percent) were won by a competitive margin (defined as a 4 percentage point difference between the top two candidates). Sixty-five races (66 percent) were won by landslide margins of 20 points or higher, with 17 of those races uncontested.

The results in the 26 state Senate races were very similar, with 62 percent of races won by landslides and only two races competitive. That's a level of competition that is no better than what we have now in California.

How about electing moderates? How did the Washington elections do in that regard? The term "moderate" is a relative one, with different definitions from state to state, so a better way to examine this is to look for how many opportunities are available for moderates to get elected. In theory, when you have two Democrats running against each other in November, or two Republicans, the voters from the other party could cross over and act as a moderating influence against either the most conservative Republican or the most liberal Democrat winning.

In Washington's House races, only six out of 98 (6 percent) had two candidates from the same party, and in the Senate, two out of 26 races (8 percent) did.So that's not a lot of races in which moderates could have an opportunity to get elected. With Washington's elections being so noncompetitive generally, that greatly limited electoral opportunities for moderates.

One positive from the Washington elections is that for the handful of races that were decided by competitive margins, they did not have to worry about spoiler candidacies coming from third-party candidates. But is essentially banning third parties from participating in the November election really the best way to handle this?Afar better way would be to use instant runoff voting, where voters could rank a first, second and third choice, and the runoff rankings would be used to elect majority winners in a single election. Third-party candidates would not be spoilers, and this would preserve voters' choices. As discussion of the top two primary proceeds in California, it seems important that the discussion be factbased.

And the facts from Washington state's elections at least show that the top two primary this past year did not result in more competition or many opportunities for moderate candidates to get elected. It gave voters more choice in the primary but at the cost of reducing their choice in the November election. It elected majority winners and got rid of the spoiler problem but at the price of greatly restricting third parties from the November ballot.

All in all, a cautionary tale about the consequences of the top two primary as political reform.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" ( ).