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Study Group on Alternative Election Processes

Is there an alternative system for voting that would ensure greater voter confidence and involvement plus address other stated League policies about governance?

 San Jose/Santa Clara league asked that question when it conducted  a study of one such alternative system which is being used in several cities and towns in the U.S, as well as in other countries. This system is called "Instant Run-off Voting," (IRV) or "Ranked Choice Voting" (RCV). IRV/RCV has been used in San Francisco since 2004, and in November 2010 for the first time, it was used in Oakland.

Our League's involvement and decision to conduct a study was prompted by the City of San Jose's consideration of implementing IRV/RCV for council and mayoral elections. Programs chair, Virginia Holtz, felt that our local league should conduct its own study and be prepared to make a recommendation should the City of San Jose decide to vote on whether or not to implement IRV/RCV. Since summer 2010, a seven-member study committee co-chaired by Pat Reardon and Gloria Chun Hoo, with members Virginia Holtz, Trixie Johnson, Norah Casner, Richard Cress and Peter Szebo, have been meeting regularly.

IRV/RCV is complex and relatively new. Results have been interesting and the opportunity to think about election reform, the wide range of thinking about how to make voting more accessible and fair has generated much discussion among Study Group members. Members of the group are studying the experiences of other cities which have used IRV/RCV, looking at election data, costs and participation of voters. "We want this to be about data, not subjective or emotional responses," noted Pat Reardon.

Why a separate study on IRV/RCV? Any new voting reform system should be studied and viewed in light of the local conditions and needs. Santa Clara County (which operates San Jose's elections) has its ballot translated into five languages, and a high percentage of permanent voters use mail-only ballots. Races for San Jose mayor and council members are nonpartisan, and represent specific districts.

In 2005, our league joined with four other Santa Clara County leagues (Cupertino/Sunnyvale, Los Altos/Mountain View, Southwest Valley and Palo Alto) to adopt a county-wide policy recommending IRV for electing members to the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, and supported a measure on the ballot which allows the county to consider implementing IRV. To date, however, IRV has not been used in this county.

The IRV/RCV Study Group is more than half-way through its study, having interviewed election officials in San Francisco; Minneapolis; King County, WA; and Alameda County, as well as proponents of IRV and opponents of IRV, and League members from those cities which have implemented IRV/RCV. The study group decided to focus its research on larger cities more comparable in size and complexity to San Jose.

Our findings and list of resources will be posted on our website and members will be invited to learn more about this new voting system that has seen both passionate supporters and detractors. A consensus meeting will be scheduled for late March and members of the IRC/RCV Study Group will present their findings.

Additional Study Resources

Shelby County, TN (pop. 920,000) to vote on new metro government. Commission votes unanimously for IRV elections

Want alternative voting? Tom Tancredo jumps into Colorado governor's race on third party line. Withers blogs

Instant runoff in Alabama: Birmingham News runs timely oped by FairVote

UK bill to have referendum just on alternative vote (IRV) is introduced

Hendrik Hertzberg on how instant runoff voting stands up well in comparison to other 1-winner voting systems

Minnesota Public Radio

More from Minnesota Public Radio 

SJ Voter

Willie Brown 

Maine LWV Concurrence Study 

How Preferential Voting works in Australia

San Francisco Department of Elections: Results November 2, 2010

Alameda County Registrar of Voters: Results November 2, 2010


More Reading:

Gaming the Vote - Why Elections Aren't Fair (And What We Can Do About It) book by William Poundstone, Hill and Poundstone, 2008

"Win or Lose" article by Anthony Gottlieb, New Yorker Magazine, July 26, 2010

University of Vermont - Vermont Legislative Research Shop -"Instant Runoff Voting" an Assessment Prepared by Anthony Gierzynski, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Vermont

League Study and other Papers: An Evaluation of Major Election Methods And Selected State Election Laws Fall 2000 --- By The League of Women Voters of Washington, Education Fund

Evaluating Ranked Choice Voting in the 2009 Minneapolis Elections: A report for the Minneapolis Elections Department by David Schultz & Kristi Rendahl An Assessment of Rank Choice Voting's Debut in Pierce County, WA A Research Report of The Washington Poll By: Loren Collingwood1, Todd Donovan2, and Matt Barreto3 June 8, 2009

Major Election Systems and their Relevance to the State of Arizona Fall 2002 League of Women Voters ® of Metropolitan Phoenix

Consensus Meeting

On March 30, 2011 The San Jose/Santa Clara League of Women Voters met to review the findings from their study of the Instant Runoff/Ranked Choice Voting System. This Study focused on the practical and documented results of elections in the US that have used this system. Focusing on larger cities that have implemented IRV/RCV, the study included numerous interviews with election officials and Leagues in the selected cities as well as an intensive review of the election results of the November 2010 elections that implemented IRV/RCV in Alameda and San Francisco Counties.

Following the study review the 21 participants discussed the results and came to Consensus on the following questions:

Should the League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara support the use of the RCV/IRV voting system for the Mayor and City Council positions for the City of San Jose?

Consensus: It was the consensus of the meeting that LWVSJ/SC should not support a change in the current system.

The reasons most cited included:

  • Given current election equipment that only allows the voter to rank three candidates, a candidate in a RCV/IRV election could "win" with a plurality rather than a majority of the total votes cast in that election.

  • Members preferred a majority voting system (50% +1) in which the person elected received the majority of total votes cast, not simply a majority of votes remaining in the final round.

  • RCV/IRV ballots and the system itself would be too confusing.

  • The current system, with a runoff in close, multi-candidate races, allows the voter more time and opportunity to focus on the final two candidates.


A small minority of those present preferred the RCV/IRV system, with the caveat that it should be a true RCV/IRV system, meaning all candidates would be ranked. Reasons included:

  • Shorter period for campaigning.

  • Since the November election has a higher turnout of voters, races would be decided by a greater number of voters.



Does the RCV/IRV system save the cities money on elections? Will it save San Jose money on elections?

  • It was noted that the County would need to purchase scanners to check ballots for errors in marking the ballots.

  • However, 68% of voters vote by mail-in ballot and the scanners would have no effect on those ballots.

  • There would be ongoing education costs in addition to start-up costs.

  • The City would pay for one less election a year (the June primaries.)


Consensus: Question cannot be answered as it is impossible to predict savings versus new costs.

Does the RCV/IRV system save money (and the need for more fund raising) for candidates and campaign committees?

  • To garner the 2nd/3rd vote, candidates would need to reach all voters rather than targeting specific voters. This could increase their cost.

  • The shorter election cycle could decrease costs.


Consensus: While the system would probably save candidates money, the shorter cycle could also mean voters were less informed about the candidates.

Does the RCV/IRV system produce more civil campaigns (or reduce negative campaigning)?

Consensus: There is a strong possibility that they would do so, however San Jose elections tend to be civil.


Does the RCV/IRV system increase voter turnout and participation in elections?

Consensus: The system takes advantage of those voting in November rather than increasing the November turnout.

Does the RCV/IRV system disenfranchise voters whose ballot is eliminated (exhausted) before the final round? How important is the use of a majority? Is this system better than the current system?


Discussion of these questions quickly became part of the discussion about the consensus question itself. Members strongly favored a winner selected by the majority of total votes cast, not the majority of unexhausted ballots.

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