Wednesday, June 06, 2007

There’s something about IRV…

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), now called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), was one of the changes made to the county charter by the voters last November.

The Auditor formed a 10 person Blue Ribbon Review Panel to help give her ideas on how to implement RCV in Pierce County for the 2008 General Election.

While RCV “only” applies to the County Executive, County Council, Auditor, Sheriff (for now) and Assessor-Treasurer offices – it is no small undertaking. Besides, RCV is used in only one other voting area our size – the City and County of San Francisco. Uh-oh. And they use it only on NON-partisan races - we will use it in only partisan races. Double uh-oh.

As a member of that Blue Ribbon Review Panel we discussed some major RCV challenges over the past two months. Strangely, most panel members have agreed with each other as we’ve come up with ideas to help implement this new-fangled voting idea. (Even stranger, the rather likable and thoughtful Democratic Party Chair has agreed with me on almost every single issue.)

Here are some of the issues.

The “new” Charter says: “The County central committee of each major political party may determine which candidates may use their party label for each County level office.” Actually this sounds just like I’d want it to say, but how do we implement the concept? And more importantly, does the Auditor say “no” to someone who wants to file as a Republican, for example, and they are not endorsed by the Party? And how does she know? And do the parties specify who can carry their label before or after a candidate files for a particular office. (Remember, the smallest filing fee for partisan county office is over $900.)

Frankly, this was pretty easy to figure out. We agreed that the parties would specify in writing about 1 March that we would opt to exercise our Charter rights. And before you ask, it is entirely possible that one party (the Democrats this year) or both would choose NOT to exercise their right to specify to the Auditor who could file using the Party’s label.

We also agreed that by April 15th we would also notify the Auditor which candidates (and for which office) could run under the Republican banner. Any other folks who try to file using our name would be refused. This is way before filing week which is the first week in June.

The April 15th date gives plenty of time for those who choose not to run under a Republican banner (or who fail to get a Republican endorsement at the County Convention) to file as an independent or under a minor party label.

The only question remaining is what party rules will we use to determine who can use our name. That is NOT the Auditor’s business and will likely be different for each party. Currently our rules are that anyone who gets 25% of his caucus vote can run as a Republican. In theory up to four folks could be a “Republican”. Remember, though, an incumbent Republican can have no Republican opposition unless 67% of the caucus votes for another candidate.

Things could get even more interesting if the Washington State Republican Party Central Committee changes the rules to, say, require a candidate get 33% or even 45% of the caucus vote to be able to use the Republican name.

Another big subject for the Auditor is “how to vote”.

Ranked Choice Voting sounds pretty simple. If you see ten candidates on the ballot for a specific office you rank order them from 1 to 10 – with 1 being your first choice and 10 your last. On certification day, a computer program that adds all the votes, drops the candidates with the fewest votes, adds their second (third, fourth, etc) place ballots to the remaining candidates and when you are down to two candidates, the one with the most votes wins.


Unless you want to spend millions of dollars that we don’t have on new voting equipment, the equipment we do have will only let you rank order your top three candidates. You can still have ten candidates, you just can’t rank order them below three.

The problem: this was not what the voters voted for. If the Auditor cannot or will not spend the money to buy new machines, then is the County open to law suits based on a different definition of RCV than the voters intended? So does this mean we are going to spend either $$millions on new voting machines or law suits? And spending money is NOT what the voters intended. What a sticky wicket! I can just see the lawyers in a tax feeding frenzy. Sigh.

Another question we faced started out to me as a “no brainer”. The question: how and when does the Auditor report voting data after the polls close and until the time the votes are certified two weeks later?

Here is why this is a problem. When the votes are counted everyday AND the formula (insiders call it an algorithm) is applied so that the 2nd and 3rd place votes are redistributed to the candidates with the higher vote counts there could be wild swings in the winner category depending on whose votes at the bottom of the heap are being “redistributed”. We were told by our voting machine company that the San Francisco elections officer got so much flack when he released the full information everyday that the next election he released almost no information until the last day.

We cannot let our Auditor hide information. It may cause confusion if the voters see wild swings in the winner’s circle; but voters will be angry if they think an elected official is hiding something or that an elected official thinks the voters are too stupid to understand.

But here is some truth from the ages: a confused voter is enlightened with full disclosure. An angry voter is only happy when you are thrown out of office on your ear! (Especially after the 2004 Governor’s race debacle in King County.)

Our advice is that all the data be released at the end of every ballot counting day. But maybe we don’t need to run the formula everyday – besides we were told that San Francisco has to stop counting ballots and spend 3+ hours every day just to run the formula and put the information into a format that the voters and the media can understand. I think that if everyday we were told how many 1s, 2s, and 3s each candidate got, then voters, political junkies and the media could probably figure out “who’s on first” without having to delay all of the other counting that has to be done. Another way to solve the problem could be to publish all the data everyday but only run the formula twice a week until the last day. Either way works for me, but hiding data because it’s inconvenient does not.

Another question from the Auditor: RCV is going to mean second piece of paper in the ballot envelope which will increase the poll worker confusion factor, so do we need to go to an all mail in ballot system like 37 of the 39 counties in Washington. (Only King and Pierce will have polls in 2008). The Auditor even suggested a compromise to keep some polls by implementing a “Vote Center” concept, which is a high tech polling location in only 5-7 places across the county instead of the 50+ polling stations we have now. A vote center would have every kind of machine and anyone from any part of the county could vote – you would not be tied to a particular polling location. It would be the place to ask questions since only the real “experts” would man the vote center. I personally like having both vote-by-mail AND polling places. It minimizes confusion because if voters have questions, they have a close-by place to go to get answers. I also really like the “Drop Off” locations scattered around the county - it saves me a lot of money.

This issue is really a question of $$$$$$$$$$$$$ !!

Certainly polling places and vote centers cost money, but so does a mail in system. We talked about the extra money a few years ago when the vote by mail program was proposed and rejected by the County Council. Then the costs were a “wash”. But that has now changed.

The new postal rates and the method they are determined will really affect your wallet. Until now, it cost 11 cents for the Auditor to mail your ballot to you (it was presorted by zip code which is a cheaper rate) and it cost you 39 cents to mail it back (unless you used the “drop off” locations.) Now, it will cost the auditor over 20 cents each to mail you your ballot, and cost you somewhere between 92 cents and $1.11 for you to mail your ballot back because it is now two pieces of paper and not only weighs more it is thicker and both things are now how the Post Office calculates postage. Yikes!

Some suggested, including the Auditor, that the county pay the return postage, kind of like a business reply envelope. To me it makes no difference. We taxpayers pay either way. But if we use a business reply type envelope, we won’t have to buy a bunch of weird denomination stamps.

We’d better start figuring out how to vote by e-mail securely, because then it will cost us less than a penny to vote.

Our advice was to keep things as they are with a mix of drop off, poll and mail in voter systems. Just make sure that each of the 58 polling places can also accept drop off mail ballots so that voters can avoid a $1.11 postal charge if they choose.

I guess our point was that we just don’t need another change to our voting processes. Let’s get this first RCV election under our belt and then see what glitches need to be corrected; then lets’ get with the County Council to see if we need all mail in voting and what we can afford.

The final question the Auditor posed to us was this: how do we educate the voter and how much do we spend to do it? How do we reach the voter and tell him or her about how RCV works and how to mark their ballot. The Auditor suggested three general approaches measured by how many times the voter is contacted. If you measure by voter contact then a 1-2 contact per voter program was projected to cost $175,000, three contacts about $350,000 and five contacts about half a million. But the costs were pretty high and the actual contact is hard to determine. The voter can be contacted though snail mail (41 cents each), post card (23 cents each), TNT ads ($1000’s to get, but pennies per contact), cable (??); TV (lots and lots of $$$$ but why do we need to reach the voters in King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Thurston), website (a few pennies), door-to-door (cheap if you use college and high school kids), or e-mail (also cheap). The San Francisco election chief was on hand for that discussion and he said that what they concentrated on was just how to mark the ballot not to get cute and tell people how the formula works or why this was adopted. If you just let the media handle that part as a news story and concentrate on how the voter is to mark the new ballot, it did not cost so quite much and you can use the internet, citizen to citizen contact at Kiwanis, Rotary Clubs and PTA meeting to present a DVD for additional contact. You can also use bus bill boards to quickly tell or show people how to mark their ballots.

The Auditor will be meeting with the County Council soon to help iron out details. The Council may have to put some more Charter language updates on the ballot this November to clear up some of the unclear language that the Charter Review Commission left us with.

A number of citizens who attended the Blue Ribbon Review Panel meetings testified that they thought that the Charter Review Commission had not done their job well. Sloppy is the word used by several. I am not so sure they were sloppy, but some items were not clearly spelled out. And some of the language was not fully thought through.

In the final analysis, though, this is not a question of whether we like or want RCV – I don’t and didn’t and neither did the Republican Party - nor the Democratic Party for that matter. But this is a question of governance. The voters approved RCV. The county is now obligated to “faithfully execute” the voters’ choice at the least possible cost. Besides, it is never wise to poke the voters’ in the eye by not executing the law as they gave it.

Unfortunately, the terms “faithfully execute” and “least cost” are mutually exclusive terms unless you watch county officials like a hawk!


At 09 June, 2007 13:30, Blogger Kelly Haughton said...

Deryl - The return mailing costs for two ballot cards would be $0.58, less than the cost of gas to drive to your polling site. The most likely event is Pierce County will be able to get its elections on to two ballot cards.

The $1.11 cost was if we required four ballot cards. A most unlikely event.

At 11 June, 2007 07:44, Anonymous Jack said...

This is a good snapshot of the challenges of implementing IRV.

San Francisco also uses a vote-for-three ballot. As I understand it (jump in if I'm wrong), this is a hardware issue. I would guess that the people who work for voting equipment companies like IRV no more or no less than the average voter. The problem is that manufacturers also make money on service calls and staffing polling centers. 'Folding two rounds into one' creates a disincentive for them to make IRV-friendly machines. But vendors have been increasingly responsive as public interest in IRV grows.

Don't worry too much about public education costs. IRV is closer to intuitive than not, and when governments take voter ed seriously, they can do it fairly inexpensively.

At 23 June, 2007 12:23, Blogger Bob Richard said...

Even stranger, the rather likable and thoughtful Democratic Party Chair has agreed with me on almost every single issue.

Not so strange. IRV is actually a non-partisan, win-win idea. Unfortunately, it's gotten framed as a partisan issue in specific places, for example Alaska (where the Republican Party supported it) and California (where quite a few Republicans are opposed). It's really good to see that folks in Pierce County are getting together on implementation.

Jack is right about San Francisco; the rank-your-top-three format is a hardware restriction. Their charter explicitly allows for the limitation but only for that reason.

While being restricted to ranking three candidates isn't a good thing, it's tolerable for single-winner offices. Rather than second-guessing the language in the charter, everyone should work toward fully-compatible voting machines eventually and live with the limitation in the meantime.


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