Friday, March 27, 2009

Voter Education at the University of Washington

The Associated Students of the University of Washington use Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for their student body elections. The students' IRV is the same system we call Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Pierce County.

The linked content
on the web is the majority of the voter education used at the University. It is substantially more content than provided by the Pierce County Auditor's Office in November 2008 at lower cost than the Pierce County content. In particular, the content discusses right up front why voters are using IRV as well as the best approaches to voting in the new system.

To our knowledge, students are not confused about the system. Perhaps this is due to more positive educational content about the system to voters.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Los Angeles considering Ranked Choice Voting

In California in general and Los Angeles in particular, city council elects often require runoff elections. For this reason, when people talk about RCV in California, they call it Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Since runoff elections can be very expensive, saving the cost of just one election can make IRV a cost saver in Los Angeles.

The economics in Los Angeles are quite compelling and we may well see IRV there soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Economies of Scale in Elections


When one makes a large investment in infrastructure, it is most cost efficient to use the investment as much as possible. Elections departments use their investment in traditional election software frequently and reap the rewards of that investment as a result. Thus far, Pierce County has not used the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) software investment more than once and, as a result, the county is not leveraging the investment wisely.

In a previous posting, we discussed the main method of gaining financial efficiency with RCV is to eliminate an election. An analysis of the 2007 primary and general elections shows the benefits of using the same software/hardware infrastructure for multiple elections. Using RCV in multiple elections would leverage the already in place investments while saving the costs of the additional election. An example of this would be if in 2009 the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Parks District of Tacoma were to use RCV in addition to Pierce County itself, it would save money for all three entities.

Lessons from the 2007 Elections

In the 2007 August primary election, there were 26 entities who shared $850,239.28 in expenses. In the 2007 November general election, there were 79 entities who shared $1,054,340.92 in expenses. The 26 entities which had a primary were allocated only $379,749.19 in general election expenses. This is less than half of the expenses incurred in the primary itself.

Why was the general election so much cheaper than the primary for those entities participating both the primary and general elections? The usage of the fixed costs of running an election were spread out over more entities in the general election than in the primary. The costs of printing and processing ballots were spread out over more entities. It is more efficient to hold multiple races in the same election.

Impact on RCV

Currently, Pierce County uses RCV for only county level positions such as County Executive and County Council. In current state law, there is no provision for local entities such as ports or park districts to use RCV in their elections. RCV activists have gone to the state legislature to ask for authority for Pierce County entities to use RCV. The Pierce County Elections Department has testified against this legislation, giving as part of the reason the large expense of the original investment expense. The Elections Department analysis ignores the fact that using the RCV investment more times will result in a decline in elections spending not an increase.

As discussed in an earlier posting, if the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Parks District were to use RCV as well as Pierce County in 2009, ALL three entities (County, Port and Parks) would save money!

Why? The expenses in the general election would be spread out over more entities and the expenses in the primary would be eliminated. It would make sense to leverage the already in place investments of RCV. The Port of Tacoma and the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma should consider taking advantage of the investment already made.

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2007 August Primary Cost Allocations for Pierce County

After each election in Pierce County (and other counties around the state), the costs of running the election are allocated to the entities which participated in the election. The mechanism for allocating costs is set by the state.

For the 2007 August Primary in Pierce County, the cost allocations are available here. Total cost of the election was $850,239.28. The largest allocations went to:

Port of Tacoma: $327,176.55
Tacoma Schools: $85,090.70
Metro Parks of Tacoma: $80,003.14
City of Tacoma: $78,721.44

The county itself paid no money since there were no county level elections in 2007. In 2009, if the county was using the Top Two election system, it would have incurred expenses about the same level as the Port incurred in 2007.

In the case of the Port, the School District and the Park District, they had only one seat each which had a primary, so all of these expenses were incurred due to a single contested race. There is something wrong with this system.

The Metro Parks District incurred its $80,000 of expense due to three candidates signing up to run for one seat on the Commission. The eventual winner, Tim Reid, won over 50% of the vote in the August election. Reid ended up winning over 50% of the vote in two elections to win the seat. RCV would have accomplished this in just one election and save the Park District a significant amount of money. Our current system requires these two elections and the associated expense at times when the Park District could use the money to fund the parks.

The current system discourages people from participating in our democracy. Running for office is likely to cost the entity significant money. RCV makes running for office a public service. The current system does not.

These kinds of savings of time, money and energy are available for counties like King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties since they elect their county level officials in odd-numbered years on a regular basis and get the cost savings from sharing the systems.

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Fiscal Analysis of Ranked Choice Voting in Washington


How Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is implemented and the existing election infrastructure have large impacts on the fiscal efficiency of RCV elections. The primary fiscal advantage of RCV is the elimination of an election for a jurisdiction. The cost of RCV can be divided into two parts: one-time capital expenses associated with acquiring software and hardware to count the votes plus the ongoing costs of running each election.

The capital costs associated with acquiring equipment and software are best defrayed by multiple uses of the software by the same election departments. Multiple uses allows jurisdictions to obtain the savings benefits without incurring additional capital costs. The best implementations will be in situations where multiple jurisdictions can eliminate elections through multiple uses of the capital investments.

Fiscal Advantages

Elections cost money to run. Eliminating an election saves money.

In California, local jurisdictions require run-off elections when no candidate receives a majority of the votes. Before adopting RCV, San Francisco was frequently forced to run runoff elections in December at considerable expense to taxpayers. With adoption of RCV, San Francisco has eliminated the need for runoff elections and consequently saves significant money in each annual election cycle. Los Angeles is contemplating converting for some of the same reasons.

In North Carolina, Cary, a city of more than 100,000, used RCV in 2007, eliminating the need for a runoff. The added voter education and election administration costs for RCV were outweighed by the savings from not holding a runoff by a ratio of more than three-to-one.

In Washington, the Top Two amounts to an "automatic runoff" system -- we always have two rounds of voting no matter how many candidates run, with a preliminary election in August and a November runoff between the top two. Cost savings from RCV comes from the elimination of the preliminary election in August and folding it into the November vote.

In Pierce County in 2008 where RCV was implemented for county level officials, the elimination of the preliminary round for county level officials did not do away with the cost of administering that election since the county must pay for the federal and state level primary elections in even-numbered years -- not fair to the county, perhaps, but a current fact of life. As a result, Pierce County did not receive any taxpayer savings from its implementation in 2008, although it did sharply reduce the costs for candidates running for office.

In 2009, Pierce County will be holding elections for local jurisdictions (e.g. city councils, school boards, port commissions, park commissions, and fire commissions). In addition, it will be holding a RCV election for the Pierce County Auditor position. In odd years such as 2009, local jurisdictions pay for their own elections, not the county. The county only pays for those elections it holds.

In 2007, the Port of Tacoma (a countywide jurisdiction) incurred election expenses of over $325,000 for just the August primary. A primary election for Auditor would cost the county a similar amount of money in 2009. Since Pierce County will be using RCV to elect its Auditor, this will be a 2009 cost savings for the county as compared to standard election procedure.

Several charter counties (e.g. King, Snohomish and Whatcom) in Washington regularly hold their county level elections in odd-numbered years. These counties would get these cost savings every two years if they implemented RCV for their county level officials. Pierce County has charter amendments on the 2009 ballot to shift county level elections to odd years. This would have the impact of saving money on these elections on a regular basis.

One-time Capital Expenses

In 2008, Pierce County invested in upgrades to its elections software and hardware to implement RCV and generally speed up all elections processing. Whenever making an investment in software, the first use is always the most expensive. Subsequent uses and multiple uses at the same time help spread out the costs.

To see how this would work, let us consider a possible scenario in Pierce County for 2009. Suppose in addition to Pierce County using RCV to elect its Auditor, the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Park District of Tacoma used RCV to elect their Commissioners. In 2007, the Port District and the Park District combined to spend over $400,000 on the August primary election. The Port and Park Districts would save this money in this scenario. In the general election, the Elections Department would not need to buy another piece of software or hardware to run these RCV elections. Thus, the benefits of the investment would be spread to a larger group of jurisdictions.

For King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, they would have this benefit every two years for any local jurisdiction choosing to use RCV. For these counties, using RCV for both county level officials and local level officials would have the cost benefit of eliminating an election by taking advantage of the county's investment.

Expenses in each Election Cycle

While in 2008 in Pierce County the majority of the expenses were one-time investments, there were still some costs which will be incurred each time you run a RCV election. These expenses are almost exclusively tied to the desire of the Secretary of State and the vendor to have the RCV elections on a separate ballot card from other elections. Since in most election cycles, Pierce County has been able to get all of the races and ballot measures on one ballot card, this separate ballot card requirement meant an increase in printing, paper and postage costs for our mail-in ballots.

With only one RCV election on the ballot this November, it is ludicrous to suggest that it should be on a separate ballot when it comes with extra costs. The County Auditor's office has done a poor job in negotiating its contract if it cannot resolve this question.

The Pierce County Elections Department should be pressuring the vendor to eliminate this separate ballot card requirement as a way to save money. Other counties in Washington considering implementing RCV should make sure discuss this issue with their vendor before buying software for RCV.

Still there are ways to save money on this expense. Let's go back to our 2009 scenario where Pierce County is electing its Auditor, and the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Parks District are electing their Commissioners using RCV. All of these races would fit on one RCV ballot card. No additional RCV expenses would need to be incurred. Plus the RCV expenses would be split three ways instead of totally being incurred by the County.

In the scenario above, each entity (County, Port and Park District) would have reduced costs versus the traditional election procedures. This comes about through leveraging the county's investment in software by the Port and Park Districts. This scenario shows what is possible in King, Snohomish and Whatcom Counties if they are to try implementing RCV in their county level elections.

Implementing in environments where an election is eliminated allows one to get the fiscal benefit of RCV. Implementing across multiple races across multiple election cycles allows the county to leverage its investment in software and hardware to benefit multiple jurisdictions. King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties have real potential to implement fiscally efficient RCV elections.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Burlington, Vermont, Elk Hunting, and Ranked Choice Voting

by Krist Novoselic, Chair of Fairvote and resident of Naselle, Washington

On March 3rd, Burlington Vermont had an RCV election. The mayor’s race shared a similar dynamic to the Pierce County Executive election. Burlington had five candidates and Pierce had four. Pierce had two Democrats, while Burlington had a Progressive Party along with a Democratic Party candidate – again similar.

The race went into an instant runoff and the incumbent mayor won with over 51 percent. Since they all vote at the polls, they knew the winner at 8:25pm.

It’s important to note how civil the campaigns were. A Democratic city councilor said the candidates were forthright and the race was, “the most respectful and informative campaign in Burlington in a long time.”

I advocate reforms like RCV out of altruism. The idea is to make the democratic experience more inclusive and compelling. It makes me feel good that the Burlington experience was so positive.

I get a lot of visitors down here on the mouth of the Columbia during elk hunting season. Last fall, most everybody told me how they were ready for the election to be over. It was like, “I’m sick of the TV ads!” They were tired of the negative campaigning. I even know PETA supporting vegans who grew weary with the election season - so the feeling was universal!

The Burlington experience is a clear reason of why RCV – there was a lot less negative campaigning. And as we’ve seen in San Francisco, rival candidates were actually endorsing each other.

Pierce voters knew how to do RCV but there could have been a stronger effort with telling why. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the county auditor’s Flash RCV tutorial. It asks, WHY RCV? And only answers with – because voters approved it in 2006.

It’s indicative of the sleeper attitude with the issue among election administrators in Pierce and Olympia.

But back to my hunter friends, I never got a chance to tell them about RCV. I was too busy making sure they cut me in when they came back from the butcher! I bet they’d perk up if they knew there was an election system that encourages positive campaigning.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Burlington, Vermont successfully uses Ranked Choice Voting to elect Mayor

Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss was re-elected over Republican challenger Kurt Wright and three other candidates in a RCV election. Burlington uses the phrase Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to describe what we in Pierce County call Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

Wright received the most first choices, but since there were five candidates in the race, no one received a majority of the first choices and the instant runoff feature of the election system kicked in. Kiss obtained a majority when Democrat Andy Montroll was eliminated in the runoff process. The vast majority of Montroll's supporters listed Kiss as their second choice.

The League of Women Voters in Vermont Legislative Chairwoman Vee Gordon writes enthusiastically about the diverse field of candidates in the Mayor's race. Gordon likes the requirement for a majority winner even in races with many candidates.

Rob Richie, Executive Director of,
notes how smoothly the election went and the lack of negative campaigning. Only one (1) voter filled out his/her ballot incorrectly. This low error rate is phenomenal when compared to other elections around the country.