Call it Ranked Choice Voting 2.0.

A new wrinkle on local democracy moves to Oakland and its neighbors, Berkeley and San Leandro, which are poised to try the new vote-counting method in city elections this year.

The three Alameda County cities would join the California pioneer across the bay, San Francisco, which since 2004 has used Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting).

RCV is a way to bring city voters to the polls only once in a year, eliminating the need for frequent runoff elections. In ranked voting, voters pick their first-, second- and third-choice candidates on a single ballot.

If a winning candidate receives less than a majority called for in city laws, the runoff can be calculated instantly by eliminating the lowest vote-getter and distributing the second-choice votes to other candidates, and repeating the process until one candidate has a majority.

Other cities are watching closely as the California ranked-voting story turns a page to chapter 2 this year. Among the cities where politicos have been discussing the potential of RCV are Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and Long Beach.

After years of efforts in the three Alameda County cities, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen in December approved a computer system for ranked voting submitted by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters (and its contractor, Sequoia Voting Systems).

On Jan. 5, the Oakland City Council voted to use ranked voting in 2010 city elections. Sixty-nine percent of Oakland voters supported a 2006 measure authorizing RCV once the county had an appropriate system in place. 

The San Leandro council had a spirited discussion of the merits of RCV on Dec. 7, with the issue tabled until a meeting today, Jan. 19. At that time, San Leandro is expected to vote on a resolution to authorize ranked voting for 2010 city elections and approve a memorandum of understanding to reimburse Alameda County for expenses incurred in preparing for ranked voting.

Berkeley is waiting to see what its share of the reimbursement cost is, which includes waiting to see if San Leandro opts in Jan. 19. A vote for ranked voting in 2010 elections could land on the agenda for council meetings Jan. 26 or Feb. 9, said Julie Sinai, chief of staff for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.

In all three cities, political discussions are already simmering about which candidates RCV favors — incumbents, better organized candidates, those with significant support in minority communities, etc.

County officials have met with representatives from the three cities since late 2007 to talk about implementation issues. “We met with the San Francisco registrar of voters to talk about things they did that worked and didn’t work, from their point of view,” said Guy Ashley, a spokesman for Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave MacDonald.

“There definitely needs to be extensive voter outreach and education to make ranked choice work,” said Marian Handa, the San Leandro city clerk.

Officials are developing a flash media presentation that will go on the Alameda County registrar’s Web site in the next couple of months. Also in the works: a tri-fold brochure to be mailed to voters and a Power Point presentation for civic meetings. Information will be available in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Registrar Dave MacDonald has told the staff to expect at least 100 presentations to groups about RCV. Also, said Ashley, “We anticipate that the cities and the League of Women Voters in each of the three cities will be involved.”

Scrutinizing the developments will be officials some 30 miles south of San Leandro. “The Santa Clara County registrar will be watching that election as we are,” said San Jose City Clerk Lee Price.

Three years ago, incoming San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed recommended a study of RCV with its potential for saving money on separate runoff elections. The city’s elections commission took up the matter, and is planning a study session with an opportunity for public comment for the early spring, said Price.

A change to RCV would require a public vote on a city charter amendment. But this November might be convenient for such a vote in San Jose with political talk lately of a measure to encourage the Athletics baseball franchise to relocate from Oakland to San Jose.

One group with East Bay reps who will make presentations for RCV is CfER (Californians for Electoral Reform), a nonpartisan, nonprofit, all-volunteer organization. “Our main purpose is to educate and do advocacy work around instant voting and proportional representation,” said President Steve Chessin. (See link here)

East Bay RCV is a significant development. “That will show that it really is not just a San Francisco thing,” said Chessin. “It’s something any municipality can do.”
“We think it’s a better election system,” said Chessin. “If a majority of people didn’t vote for the winner, that doesn’t speak well for democracy.”

Some cities, such as Oakland’s past practice, have a primary in June with the anticipated runoff taking place on November’s Election Day. That means the first round, in June, occurs in a low-turnout environment, not accompanied by high-interest state or federal elections. Other cities, such as Berkeley, have the election in November, with a potential runoff the next month, again in a low-turnout environment.

Two sets of elections carry extra costs for cities and counties — and for citywide political campaigns that must spread their fund-raising over more months.

A bill in the state Legislature, AB 1121, would have set up pilot projects for RCV in a limited number of general law cities and counties. It died in the Senate.

“Now we’re focusing on the existing charter cities that want to use instant voting,” said Chessin. “Once we get more charter cities going, it will be easier to get a general law bill.”

Around the country, voters are marking ballots first, second and third choice in a few cities, including Minneapolis and Burlington, Vt., and for state elections in Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina.