Democracy: More instant runoffs this November

On November 2, three cities in Alameda County -- Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro -- will join San Francisco in choosing candidates by a method known as ranked-choice voting or, more widely, instant runoff.

San Francisco has used instant runoffs since 2004 (see, Election Reform: Instant Runoffs, Impractical Proposals 2004-12-29). Under the system, voters may, if they wish, rank their top three choices from among the candidates. If no one achieves a majority in the first tally, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, that candidate's voters' next-ranked choices are distributed among the remaining contestants, and the ballots are counted again. Eliminations and recounting continue until a candidate reaches 50 percent, plus one.

Proponents of the instant runoff say that it saves money and resources by eliminating the need for conventional runoffs on another day. With an instant runoff, the eventual winner is guaranteed to have the support of a majority of people casting ballots. It also helps to advance democracy because, as a special election, a traditional runoff ordinarily will have a lower turnout than a general election.

Last December, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen approved a computer system developed by Sequoia Voting Systems for ranked-choice voting. In April, a challenge to San Francisco's instant runoffs was rejected by a Federal judge.

Alameda County has set up a website, Ranked-Choice Voting, to explain the new system to voters in English, Spanish and Chinese, with faqs, a newsletter and soon, inevitably, an iPhone app. Other county efforts to familiarize voters with the new system will go on throughout the summer and fall.

If instant runoffs work as well as predicted this November, other cities, possibly including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Jose and Sacramento, can be expected to follow suit. And a successful reform of one kind makes it easier to contemplate others, such as proportional representation, weekend voting, consolidating elections to lower costs and increase turnout, and publicly-funded campaigns, that would also tend to make the system fairer and, in many cases, cheaper both for taxpayers and candidates.

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