Elections Commission Looks at Instant Runoffs

The San Jose Elections Commission is considering changing the way citizen’s vote for city officials in an effort to save both money and time. At its June 10 meeting, the commission is set to discuss the possibility of San Jose becoming the most populous jurisdiction in the United States to implement Instant-Runoff Voting when casting ballots for city office holders.

Instant-runoff voting (IRV) is a voting system where candidates are ranked in order of preference by voters in single-winner elections. San Jose currently uses the exhaustive ballot voting system, in which voters cast only a single vote for their favorite candidate.

In the IRV system, if no candidate is the first preference of a majority of voters, the candidate with the fewest numbers is eliminated and has their votes redistributed to the remaining candidates until a majority leader is chosen.

The following day on June 11, San Jose City Council members Sam Liccardo and Ash Kalra will attend a panel discussion on IRV at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library. The free, catered event aims to explain how IRV works and how it could benefit San Jose.

Moderated by SJSU Professor of Political Science Terry Christensen, other participants in the discussion will include Californians for Electoral Reform President Steve Chessin and California Common Cause Board Member Katie Selenski.

It will take place in Library room 225 from noon-1:15pm and is sponsored by the New America Foundation and Common Cause.

Proponents of the change to IRV say it is a cheaper, quicker way to elect leaders that also eliminates the expense of runoff elections, while detractors say it violates the one-person one vote mandate.
Because San Jose is a charter city under California Law, it has the option to place a charter amendment on the ballot to implement IRV.




  1. I’m of mixed minds about this. It will save the city money, for sure. But it will make it more difficult for unknown candidates to have a chance at getting elected, which might discourage otherwise well qualified people from entering the political arena.

    I think that I agree with Kathleen, but maybe with a special override for recall elections.

  2. #1: Unless you can save money doing it another way.  And some would argue that it is broken.  Turnout is down, particularly in San Jose runoff elections.  The idea here is to consolidate everythine into one election, thus reducing cost and increasing turnout.  Works in San Francisco.

  3. David,
    May be it saves money, but I don’t agree. Voting isn’t about costs any way, it is about electing good leaders. Pat is correct, it canceles out lessor known candidates.

    I don’t knowwhy this is always such a big issue anyway. We’ve voted with the poke of a stick for decades and now all the sudden it is a big deal. YIKES! I guess my age is showing!

  4. Kathleen,

    Um, the poke of a stick didn’t work in Florida in 2000 did it?  Just because we haven’t had a controversy over a San Jose election doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve the system to prevent a problem.  As people come up with better ways to do things, including running elections, we ought to give them a chance.  The time to improve something is before a problem arises, not after.

  5. Pat # 2 opined:“But it will make it more difficult for unknown candidates to have a chance at getting elected…”  Please explain to me how/why that is, Pat.

    #3—don’t worship at the altar of turnout.  Unkowingly, the Founding Fathers may have had it right re who gets to vote.  The folks that don’t turn out are not necessarily educated voters.  One can make a case that the fact that many of these dolts stayed home is a good thing.

    Kathleen #4 opined:“Voting isn’t about costs any way, it is about electing good leaders.”  Unfortunately, most of the clowns that run are not good leaders; but they are good at self-aggrandizement.

  6. JMO,
    “Unfortunately, most of the clowns that run are not good leaders; but they are good at self-aggrandizement.”
    Boy if that ain’t the truth nothing is!

  7. IRV is like getting a free pony. It costs alot of money to take care of. You need new voting machines, more complex software more expensive programming, licensing, maintenance, and the counting process is not transparent.  The sad thing is that it hurts third parties, not helps them.

    Read more about IRV at these links:

    Kathy Dopp “Realities Mar Instant Runoff – 18 Flaws and 3 Benefits
    Center for Range Voting http://www.rangevoting.org/rangeVirv.html

  8. Pat and Kathleen,

    In fact, IRV *encourages* new candidates to run even though it does not increase their chances of winning. Political newcomers are often asked not to run by more experienced politicians with similar views, so as not to split the vote and allow someone they both oppose to win. With IRV, newcomers can gain valuable public exposure and campaigning experience without running the risk of vote splitting.

    And IRV doesn’t stand in the way of newcomers if they have something to offer that the veterans lack. It does require majority support to win. That only blocks newcomers and established candidates alike from sneaking through because multiple opponents split the vote.

  9. I’m in favor of instant runoff voting (IRV) for non-partisan municipal races in San Jose. I am hard-pressed to see how IRV would offer any dramatic advantages or disadvantages to a particular bloc of voters. In communities that have implemented IRV, the community has benefited from an increase in voter turnout, more candidates seeking elective office and more effective governing coalitions in local government.

  10. The system is broken right now with the equation of $1 per resident needed to win a council seat.  So high turnout districts like Almaden take $100,000, and low turnout districts like downtown still take $100,000.  If you are an incumbent, everyone with business before the council (developers and unions) will automatically donate, whether they like you or not.  This means we’ve got a non-competitive situation.  And with term limits, it means that there’s only one shot at a seat, when its open, otherwise you might as well wait 8 years.

    So IRV would front-load the process with the best funded candidates raising the needed funds and spending it all to win in one round of voting.  The run-off has often seen the front-runner in a primary unseated because their early fundraising did not reflect a depth of support and as more and more people looked closer at the two choices in the runoff, the unthinkable happened, the lesser known long-shot makes it to the council.

    IRV would be undemocratic as it would funnel the whole race into a short fundraising and spending frenzy that would end before the candidates are truly vetted.  Of course there are nations where the whole election is conducted in a quick race with a short period of campaigning followed by the election (the UK).

    Lets get really radical and add some at-large seats to the council (6) and then enlarge the remaining 6 district seats, creating a twelve member council with staggered terms, longer term limits (3 terms), spending limits and public financing in the primary, but no limits in the runoff.

    And just for fun, lets try IRV in recalls and special elections, with the provision that seats filled by IRV can only last until the next regularly held election cycle.

  11. #11, Clark – you are wrong.  Please provide credible links supporting your 3 claims.

    1.  increase in voter turnout

    #9 clearly points to several links which site statistics showing decreased voter turnout, but these I don’t trust as well. 

    But, more importantly, many of the electorate did not embrace IRV, marking just one, or the same candidate 3 times.  In the SF an astounding 94% of absentee voters listed just one choice.  http://www.instantrunoffvoting.us/sanfrancisco.html – Why this is so significant is in the Nov. 08 election, 57% voted absentee. 

    IRV cannot be shown to increase voter turnout.  Turnout depends on sooo many factors.

    2. more candidates seeking elective office

    San Jose typically has 6 – 10 candidates in each race

    2006 Mayoral – 10 Candidates
    2006 D3 – 8 Candidates
    2006 D6 – 6 Candidates
    2008 D4 – 8 Candidates
    2008 D2 – 6 Candidates

    – do we need more?

    3. more effective governing coalitions in local government.

    This is Happy Speak.  http://www.preventioninstitute.org/eightstep.html Please provide some tangible references and examples of IRV’s impact.

    Many experienced politicians like Clark want IRV as it shortens the election cycle and it is less of a burden on them.  However, the citizens deserve a good primary then a general election. The candidates should openly discuss their positions and get fully vetted by the public and the press.  The general can get fierce, pitting candidates in a clash of ideas.  It is this time honored battle of democracy where the true colors of the candidates are shown, and the public who chose vote, can make informed decisions.  With IRV it’s so quick, so many candidates…. then, someone’s elected.  Be careful what you ask for.

    If it is about saving money, why don’t we just extend the council and mayoral terms to 8 years?  I can provide overwhelming statistics that prove elections in SJ with an incumbent running is a total waste of money.  How about that?

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