Alameda County officials are making plans to prepare the electorate for a new form of democracy in three cities, as other California jurisdictions watch the Nov. 2 experiments with interest.

Officials were not surprised that a federal judge in mid-April affirmed the ranked choice voting system of San Francisco, the local pioneer in this type of democracy.

“Everyone was confident that that lawsuit would not prevail,” said Dave Macdonald, Alameda County registrar of voters.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg rejected a request for an injunction from plaintiffs, including a candidate who lost, alleging disenfranchisement. (See here) It’s also the flip side of the issue of elections being randomly scheduled with no thought given to consolidation (see “Governor’s Spite To Cost Central Coast Counties $6.5 Million“)

In San Francisco, the ranked choice voting (RCV) system took effect in 2004. Voters may, but are not required to, rank their top three candidates. If no one achieves a majority, election officials immediately eliminate the candidate with the fewest first-place votes and redistribute those voters’ next-ranked votes to other candidates for an instant runoff. Recounting continues until a candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote – plus one.

Officials promote the system saying that it saves money and resources (for government agencies and, presumably, local candidates) over procedures that lead to regular runoff elections to achieve a candidate with a majority. This often results in a special election at a time of low turnout.

Oakland and two neighboring cities, Berkeley and San Leandro, have moved to RCV with this year’s cycle of city elections. The elections take place Nov. 2 at a time of presumably high turnout with statewide elections.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen in December approved a computer system for RCV submitted by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters (and its contractor, Sequoia Voting Systems), paving the way for San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley. RCV in some places is known as Instant Runoff Voting.

Alameda County has set up a Web page to explain RCV to voters in English, Spanish and Chinese, with answered to frequently asked questions and a voter education newsletter. (See here)

The education push will intensify in the summer leading up to Nov. 2, said Macdonald. Alameda County soon will disseminate an RCV-explainer IPhone application that can be downloaded for free, he said.

The county also has a partnership with AC Transit, with a bus painted in bright colors advertising get-out-the-vote efforts. The county is talking to the Oakland A’s baseball team about having a ballpark event to publicize RCV.
Each registered voter will receive a separate mailing explaining RCV, Macdonald said. Knowing that voters will have questions about the system, the registrar is making plans to have an extra poll worker at each polling place.

After Nov. 2, the county will analyze the data, calculating how many voters exercised their right to rank three candidates and how many invalid under-votes or over-votes occur compared to a non-RCV election, Macdonald said.

Among the cities watching the East Bay democratic experience will be Los Angeles, where the City Council has discussed a move toward RCV.

Before proceeding with RCV, the city is waiting as Los Angeles County updates election technology.

“We’re a very large city, reliant on the county for most of its voting equipment,” said Erik Sanjurjo, director of policy for City Councilmember Jose Huizar. “We must wait for them to move forward. They are updating election equipment in the middle of a long process.”

One idea is to have an RCV pilot project, using a Los Angeles special election for an open seat when the opportunity arises, Sanjurjo said.

Los Angeles city elections are normally held in March of odd years, often with a runoff vote in May.

The city is planning a government reform forum on June 10, and RCV will be one of the topics, Sanjurjo said.

There has been some discussion in recent years about a move to RCV in Long Beach, but thus far the City Council has not voted for an authorizing charter amendment, said City Clerk Larry Herrera.

Lance Howland can be reached at