Friday, April 07, 2006

Richard Anderson-Connolly's testimony before the Pierce County Charter Review Commission

Testimony for the Pierce County Charter Review Commission
Regarding Ranked-Choice Voting/Instant Runoff Voting

Richard Anderson-Connolly
April 6, 2006

I. Description of Ranked-Choice Voting/Instant Runoff Voting

Citizens vote on a ballot that allows them to rank the candidates in their order of preference.

All votes are counted in rounds until a majority winner is found. In the first round, only first choices are counted. If there is no majority winner, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. All ballots are recounted using the highest ranked candidates still in the race. (In other words, the second choices for some voters are now considered along with the first choices for everybody else.) This process continues until a majority winner is produced.

II. Comparison and Contrast of RCV/IRV and Plurality

Ø Majority Winners with RCV/IRV

RCV/IRV is a majoritarian system. Plurality is not; on a frequent basis officials are elected with less than 50% of the vote, casting doubt on whether the most preferred candidate was elected.

Ø No Wasted Votes or Spoiled Elections with RCV/IRV

RCV/IRV eliminates the spoiler problem associated with minor candidates. With plurality voting minor candidates can help the “wrong” candidate win. This discourages some potential candidates from running and leads to insincere voting by citizens (voting for a major party candidate instead of the most preferred candidate).

Ø RCV/IRV is Fiscally Responsible

RCV/IRV can reduce public expenditures by eliminating the primary.

Ø Higher Turnout with RCV/IRV

Candidates are elected at one election – the general election – which has the higher turnout. The new primary in August will likely have even lower turnout than the previous September primary.

Ø Voting Experts Strongly Criticize Plurality Elections

The broad consensus among political scientists, social choice theorists, and mathematicians is that plurality voting is the worst system:

In spite of its widespread use, the plurality method has many flaws and is usually a poor method for choosing the winner of an election when there are more than two candidates. Its principal weakness is that it fails to take into consideration the voters’ preferences other than the first choice, and in so doing can lead to some very bad election results. (Tannenbaum and Arnold, Excursions in Modern Mathematics)

The real problem concerns our archaic election procedures…The point which will be made is that our basic voting procedures can generate problems so worrisome that it is reasonable to worry about the legitimacy of most election outcomes. This is not conjecture; mathematical support will be provided. (Donald Saari, Chaotic Elections: A Mathematician Looks at Elections)

Plurality rule is pervasive even though it is a flawed system. Fortunately, there is no lack of suitable alternatives. (Leven and Nalebuff, An Introduction to Vote-Counting Schemes)

Very few democratic countries still use plurality elections. England and some Canadian Provinces, among those few, are currently considering changes to their voting systems.

III. Responding to the Objections to RCV/IRV

Ø Voter Confusion

While opponents claim that voters will not be able to understand RCV/IRV there is no empirical evidence to support this. In San Francisco nearly 90% of voters said they understood RCV. In Burlington only 9% said it was confusing. RCV/IRV is also used in Ireland and Australia without difficulty.

Even ignoring the empirical evidence, common sense suggests that most Pierce County voters are smart enough to know whether they have a second or even a third preference among the candidates. Furthermore, for those who do not have a second preference, it is entirely permissible to vote for only one candidate.

Pierce County would be advised to follow the successful voter education campaigns in San Francisco and Burlington. There is no reason to assume that the auditor would be unable to conduct such a campaign here.

Ø Technical Difficulties

Sequoia is the vender for voting equipment for Pierce County. The machines we use – 400C, Insight, and Edge – are compatible with RCV/IRV. The only change would be the need for software to count ranked ballots.

The use of RCV/IRV is increasing in the US and other vendors (Election Systems and Software; Diebold) could also conduct these types of elections.

Ø Cost of RCV/IRV

Given the voting equipment already used in Pierce County, the only additional cost would be for software that could count ranked ballots. Sequoia has such software and the price would be negotiated between the vendor and the county. Since other vendors can also conduct RCV/IRV elections the auditor should be able to negotiate a good price.

The best option, however, might be third-party support. In fact, software to count ranked-choice ballots is also available from Voting Solutions free of charge. The program, ChoicePlus Pro, is used for the elections in both Burlington, Vermont and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is free and has a proven, successful record.

Should the county decide to buy software instead of using the free ChoicePlus Pro, it would be a one-time purchase. In contrast, the county would save money on an on-going basis because it would not conduct an even-year primary. In the future it is reasonable to predict that many cities in Pierce County will want to adopt RCV/IRV as a means to save tax dollars and thus eliminate odd-year primaries.

Ø Legality of RCV/IRV in General

RCV/IRV has survived numerous court challenges.

In 1908 the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of Washington law that permitted second-choice voting (a more limited version of RCV/IRV):

The principal argument against the second choice provision is that it interferes with the freedom of election guaranteed by the constitution, and compels the elector to vote for a person other than the candidate of his choice. This contention is untenable. (Coon v. Nichols, 1908)

There have been numerous failed challenges to RCV/IRV in other states. The most recent (that could be found) was in Michigan in 1975:

The fact that the Charter Amendment in question consolidates two elections into one, does not of itself create a classification nor discriminate against any group of voters. It possesses a monetary savings to the municipality in question and is not a factor to be overlooked.

Basic to all, is the right of self determination by the Ann Arbor voters. Their Charter Amendment was voted into effect by a majority of those voting November 5, 1974. The fact that "Ware" or preferential voting system is "different" from the system of voting we have come to know in this State, does not affect its validity. (Stephenson vs. Ann Arbor, 1975)

Ø Authority to Use RCV/IRV in Pierce County

As noted by Bob Dick, the Washington State Constitution (Article XI, Section 4) grants Home Rule Counties substantial authority. The use of RCV/IRV would be permitted. This opinion is confirmed and supported by the accompanying analysis provided by Pierce County Attorney Richard Shepard.

We should note that the IRV Pilot Project, which grants permission to the City of Vancouver, is not the statutory authority. Charter Counties already have the authority due to the State Constitution. Cities, lacking that power, must be given special approval by the State Legislature. The proposed charter amendment for Pierce County borrows language from the IRV Pilot Project (RCW 29A.53) but is legally independent of it.

IV. Additional Advantages to Citizens of Pierce County

Ø Elimination of the Pick-a-Party (Montana) Primary

Polling data reported by the Secretary of State indicated that 79% of voters disliked the Pick-a-Party (Montana) primary and only 21% supported it.

The citizens currently must pay for an unnecessary primary election that the vast majority do not like.

RCV/IRV saves money for the citizens of Pierce County and gives them the choice to vote across party lines as they prefer.

Ø Fair and Equal Treatment of Independent Candidates and Voters

In analyzing the American National Election Survey (2004) I found the following distribution of partisan identification among voters:

Party Identification

Strong Democrat
16.5% (U.S.)
13.7% (Washington)
Weak Democrat
15.5% (U.S.)
13.5% (Washington)
38.7% (U.S.)
41.4% (Washington)
Weak Republican
12.4% (U.S.)
16.3% (Washington)
Strong Republican
16.4% (U.S.)
15.2% (Washington)

Independents outnumbered strong and weak Democrats combined and strong and weak Republicans combined. Yet our current system discourages independents from running and leads to insincere voting when they do.

RCV/IRV elections, even as partisan races, should be preferred by those who favor a change to non-partisan elections. Partisan RCV/IRV elections maintain the advantages of both systems: The information conveyed by the partisan label is available to voters yet voters are free to vote for independent candidates without fear of wasting a vote.

V. Would an RCV/IRV Amendment Pass?

Despite the advantages of RCV/IRV over plurality voting, the Charter Review Commissioners might still have concerns with an RCV/IRV amendment because of the possibility that voters will reject it. I offer two responses to this concern.

Ø The citizens of Pierce County are as likely to be disappointed as citizens in the rest of the state with the Pick-a-Party (Montana) primary. RCV/IRV will have strong appeal to this large segment of the population.

Ø I respectfully suggest that the citizens should decide whether to move to RCV/IRV. There are two ways in which the Commission could “miss the call”: (1) by submitting a proposed change to the people that is voted down; or (2) by failing to submit a change that would have passed. Of the two clearly the bigger error would be the latter. The former is hardly a mistake; some commissioners might vote to place amendments on the ballot that they will vote against in November because they believe that the people should decide. I would suggest that when in doubt, err on the side of giving choice to the people.

VI. Conclusion

If the citizens believed that the elected county officials were able to make systemic changes on their own then the Charter Review Commission would have no reason to exist. History has shown us, however, that the interests of those in office can diverge from the citizens they are charged to represent. A change to the voting system that put incumbents into office has very little chance of coming forward through the normal Council procedures. Thus it falls to the citizens – those on the Charter Review Commission and those who vote in the fall election – to make the improvements to our system that our elected officials are unlikely to consider.


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