City Council passes ranked-choice voting
on January 6, 2010
With new changes to the city’s election law, an Oakland voter could cast his ballot for Ron Dellums, Don Perata AND Jean Quan for mayor next year—and then rank each candidate in order of preference. This may sound confusing at first, but a majority of Oakland voters in 2006 said they preferred this system, and the City Council approved the change in a 6-2 vote last night.
More than one hundred people filled the City Council chamber in downtown Oakland yesterday, many with signs saying “Yes to IRV” (instant-runoff voting). Following nearly 50 speakers, the council voted to implement the new voting process, with Jane Brunner and Ignacio de la Fuente casting the two dissenting votes.
“We have a voter mandate, and we can in fact do this right,” Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said.
Nearly 69 percent of Oakland voters approved Measure O in 2006, which mandated that the city use the new instant-runoff voting system by 2010. With instant-runoff voting—or ranked-choice voting, as city officials call it—voters rank their top three candidate choices for each office. This eliminates the need for Democratic and Republican party primaries in the spring. In the case of a close election, voters’ second and third choices will be used to determine the winner.
Last night, council members voted on a memorandum of understanding—or MOU—with fellow Alameda County cities San Leandro and Berkeley to share the costs of the new voting system. The agreement establishes that the cost of the transition to ranked-choice voting is not to exceed $1.5 million.
Oakland is the first city to vote on this MOU, and therefore would have to pay the entire cost if the other cities do not sign on. De La Fuente expressed concern that the city, already facing a multimillion dollar deficit, doesn’t have the money for the startup costs.
Deputy City Attorney Alix Rosenthal advised the council to approve the MOU. She said the software upgrades, training and voter education campaign will likely cost $947,000—costs that would be shared with other cities who sign the MOU.
Many of those who testified said that the council must implement the will of the voters or face lawsuits. “With all due respect, this is not your decision to make,” said Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont, executive director of Oakland Rising. Tervalon-Daumont also testified that her organization has experience with voter education and is ready to work with a broad coalition on outreach efforts.
Steve Hill of the New America Foundation testified about a study conducted in 2004 and 2005 following San Francisco’s transition to ranked-choice voting. The study showed around 87 percent of voters understood the new system, a percentage that remained relatively constant among voters of different races.
A few residents raised concerns about voter education and potential disenfranchisement. Randall Whitney of the Spanish Speaking Citizens’ Foundation said he is worried the education and outreach plan will not sufficiently reach Spanish-speaking voters. About eight other speakers raised similar concerns and asked the council to delay the decision so there would be enough time for outreach to voters who speak English as a second language.
With Oakland holding a mayoral election next year, the instant-runoff voting decision has taken on political significance. Former State Senate President Don Perata and City Councilwoman Jean Quan are running, while current Oakland mayor Ron Dellums has not announced whether he intends to run for re-election. Oakland’s existing system of party primary elections in the spring is thought to benefit candidates like Perata and Dellums who have greater name recognition with voters.
The transition to ranked-choice voting means that 2010 mayoral candidates will not have to spend money on a primary in June. “Frankly right now, a lot of us don’t have campaign funds,” Quan said during the meeting.
If this election is less expensive for candidates, Councilwoman Nancy Nadel said, “That’s when you get real grassroots policy makers coming forward.”
The end result is that Oakland residents will now elect a mayor in November, not June. “What’s great about [ranked-choice voting] is it allows us to build coalitions around the city, instead of it being about who has the most money,” Quan said.
In other business, the council approved the city’s residential parking fee increase from $20 to $35 annually. Council President Brunner said that the increase is necessary because issuing 4,000 parking permits cost the city $188,000 to administer. Jon Gabel of the Rockridge Community Planning Council spoke during the open comments period to oppose the fee increase on procedural grounds.
The council also honored Oakland’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee “for her years of dedicated leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” Councilwoman Kaplan cited Lee’s role in lifting the travel ban prohibiting HIV-positive people from traveling to the United States. The new law took effect yesterday.
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