Friday, December 4, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: Instant Runoff Voting Coming to Oakland

By Robert Gammon
Fri, Dec 4, 2009 at 5:25 PM

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen officially certified Alameda County’s new voting system this afternoon, thereby allowing Oakland to hold only one election next year — in November. The election would feature instant-runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank their top choices in an election, and thus eliminate the need for a costly primary. A super majority of Oakland voters approved instant-runoff voting in 2006 with 69 percent of the vote. San Francisco has been using the system for several years.

Alameda County Registrar Dave MacDonald said the certification means the county “is ready to go now” and fully able to conduct an instant-runoff voting election on behalf of Oakland, along with Berkeley and San Leandro, next year. The Oakland City Council plans to take up the issue in January, but it should be no more than a formality, because city law requires the city to use instant-runoff voting once MacDonald declares that he’s ready.

Mayoral candidate Don Perata had been lobbying behind the scenes to delay the new system, claiming that it’s complicated and that seniors and non-English speakers would be confused by it. The former state senator also would greatly benefit from having two elections because he is a prodigious fund-raiser and has strong name recognition.

Councilwoman Jean Quan, by contrast, would likely benefit from one election in November because it would give her more time to raise funds, and would give voters more time to get to know her. In addition, Perata’s argument about voter confusion was undermined by the success of instant-runoff voting in San Francisco.

Bowen’s office had been expected to certify the new system for Alameda County earlier this fall. But her office, Alameda County, San Francisco, and voting-software vendor, Sequoia, had to iron out a few minor glitches in the system first. The problems, if left unfixed, would have affected disabled Chinese-language speaking voters and the hearing impaired. The glitch didn’t affect the accuracy of the vote counts, but limited the voters’ ability to review his or her vote. Bowen’s office said Friday that they had solved the problems to her satisfaction.

However, her office also said that Alameda County must conduct a thorough educational outreach campaign and issued benchmarks for the county and city to meet. Some Oakland City Councilmembers have raised concerns about whether the city can finance such an educational campaign. But that shouldn’t be an issue, as long as the council decides not to go ahead with a June election, which could cost about $800,000. The money saved from not having that election will easily pay for an extensive outreach campaign.

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