Saturday, December 5, 2009

Voting System has All Sides Torn

The Citizen
Vice Mayor Joyce Starosciak says Instant Runoff Voting may be the wave of the future, but it may not be the right time for San Leandro and the city manager's office surprised proponents of the progressive election system by agreeing with her sentiment.

In the agenda for Monday night's city council meeting posted Friday, the city staff stated it will not recommend the city institute what has been renamed Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for November 2010 and instead, proceed with elections in June and November as previous years.

According to sources, the announcement by the city manager's office on such matters is unusual and perturbed Mayor Tony Santos, who along with Councilman Jim Prola have strongly supported RCV. Santos said the city staff should not recommendations on such issues. "It's not their position to make policy, it is the council's," said Santos.

The city staff may have shied away from RCV during this time of economic hardship because of the startup costs of implementation and the delay to approve the voting system in Alameda County by the Secretary of State Debra Bowen. But, in another twist Friday, Bowen signed off on RCV removing one large stumbling block and setting up voter-approved November elections in neighboring Berkeley and Oakland.

Despite the city's recommendation, discussion at Monday's council meeting is likely to be contentious with a council interestingly split along gender lines and political allegiances. It is believed the swing-vote may be conservative-leaning Councilman Bill Stephens.

The normally cordial relationship between the mayor's office, city council and staff which tend to work in concert with each other have been strained. The RCV question has roiled all sides, including Santos, who is running for re-election next year against Councilwoman Strarosciak and former school board member Stephen Cassidy. "It's a real bugaboo having a city councilmember running against a sitting mayor," said Santos. "It creates competitiveness and it undermines the council because were are not operating as a team. It's not the way it's suppose to be."

In addition, the council rarely goes against staff recommendations. According to Starosciak, she estimates, the council follows suit about 90 percent of the time. Doing so in the past has been looked upon by some council members as bad form. Earlier this summer, Prola admonished Starosciak for voting against recommendations to adopt the current budget insinuating it was an insult to Finance Director Perry Carter and his staff.

At issue is the adoption of a new voting system that proponents say will save the city money to hold elections in the future. It will also, according to noted San Francisco State Political Science Professor Rich DeLeon, allow for more people to afford running for office and decide elections with larger portions of the voting population. "Instant Runoff Voting is especially effective in places with a lot of diversity," said DeLeon. "Turnout is higher, it brings out more voters and encourages coalition building. We found, in fact, IRV produced better outcomes for racial minorities without damaging the established white power structure."

A frequent criticism of plurality voting is the presence of the "spoiler effect" where a less desirable third candidate can change the results of an elections against the electorates wishes. The most widely used example is the possibility voters for Ralph Nader handed the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush by taking electoral votes away from Al Gore. DeLeon calls the example "overblown" and instead hypothesizes a race where two liberal Latinos running against each other within a decidedly Latino population suffers when a less desirable third candidate benefits from a split electorate. "People do not have to vote for people they don't care about with IRV," said DeLeon. "That example is not what I would call a fair result. Voters feel disenfranchised because they could not get their act together and decide on one candidate. That would not happen if you rank your choices."

DeLeon, who has studied RCV elections in San Francisco since 2004, also says there is scant evidence RCV helps incumbents any more or less than any other voting system, which is a criticism of groups against RCV.

The opponents of RCV in San Leandro, while not overly enamored with it, have not dwelled on the pros and cons of the voting system, but whether the startup costs are a worthy expenditure within a tight city budget that is likely to further squeeze residents in the next year. It is estimated RCV will cost $182,000 for a single election in November 2010, rather than $125,000 for two elections in June and a possible runoff in November. In subsequent elections, the cost of RCV would drop to an estimated $110,000, saving the city money in the long run, but Councilwomen Starosciak and Diana Souza say the city can't afford to look so far into the future.

"Facing the kind of budget situation we have today, if we pass IRV, we are going to have to cut something else," said Souza. The city has already faced anger this year from residents upset over cuts to recreational programs and school crossing guards.

"It will costs more for IRV next year than it will for two election--it's counterintuitive," said Starosciak. "If I want to be efficient with the city's money I would say we need to wait."

A large part of the extra costs saddled with the initial run of RCV is educating the public on the system where voters rank their preferences 1-2-3. The candidate with the least number of first place voters is then spread proportionally to the remaining candidates until one person attains a majority.

Starosciak worries residents will be overloaded with information next year with literature about RCV in addition to recently approved mailers the city is planning to explain the city's worsening economic condition. "The public is already going to receive information on the budget and I don't think it's fair to put so many demands on our constituents."

Souza says instead of adopting RCV, the city should go back to at-large voting the city used before 2000. "Why did we even change it, anyway?" asked Souza. "Most cities around us don't use runoffs anymore. I'm for it going back to the way it was."

There were myriad reasons for the voter-approved change to the city charter in 2000 which called for elected offices to be decided by a majority of votes. Then-Councilwoman Ellen Corbett became mayor in 1994 despite winning far less than a majority of votes casts. Many, at the time, worried about the prospects of a mayor running the city with less than a voter mandate and successfully persuaded the public to agree. Almost a decade later, though, many insiders say the real reason for the drive to alter the charter was derived from sour grapes among the city's predominately white, male establishment against a woman in City Hall. Women held the mayor's office for the next 12 years until Santos' victory in 2006.

Note: An addition to this article was made to clarify a quotation. Dec. 7, 3:30 p.m.
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1 comment:

  1. The staff report is out of date. This report was written in the middle of last week, and says that the voting equipment has not been approved by the Sec. of State. It also says that IRV is not going forward in Oakland and Berkeley. Both of these are untrue. Just this past Friday, Sec of State Debra Bowen gave her approval for the county's voting equipment to be used for IRV. And now Oakland City Council has scheduled a meeting for Jan. 6 to approve the MOU to use IRV. The staff should redraft its report to bring it up-to-date. Until that time, the city council should not make any decisions based on this out-of-date staff report.

    Lucy Colvin