Seth Woolley's Blog

Occasional Musings

Sat May 28 22:34:57 2011 -- current status of irv campaign

current status of irv campaign(0)

Who I am

I'm Seth Woolley, former State Secretary of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, 2008 candidate for Secretary of State, and treasurer of the Portland Greens.  I am employed as a senior spatial database software engineer for a silicon valley startup, but my political passion is the entire gamut of progressive election reform.

I ran on a campaign of campaign finance reform, majority voting with IRV, and ballot access reform.  The ballot access reform was successful, and in 2009 the Democrats repealed a 2005 law they passed to prevent independent candidates from getting on the ballot by unconstitutionally throwing out most party-registered candidates from petitions and nominating conventions.  In supporting IRV, I also was one of the main opponents of measure 65 which was a corporate media and corporate-financed campaign to implement the Louisiana "Top Two" Primary system in Oregon that would make the problems IRV is intended to solve actually worse than simple first choice voting we already had.  It's like they went to a mathematician and asked how to make an election system that's vulnerable to more manipulation than our current system.  I was quite pleased that we Oregonians were collectively smarter than our neighbors in rejecting Top Two by a wide margin.

How does IRV work?

Instant Runoff Voting, also called Ranked Choice Voting and Alternative Vote, is a form of Preference Voting where voters are asked to fill out more than their first choice of preferences and then counting is done using multiple rounds off the same ballots.  The way it works is very simple.  If after counting all the first choice votes and somebody has a majority, they are immediately elected and the election is done.  If, however, nobody gets a majority of the first choice votes, the last place of first choice votes is eliminated, the ballots are transferred to the next choice on those ballots, and counting is re-done.  A majority is re-checked for after each round until there is a majority or there is only one candidate left.  This ensures, as best as possible, that each candidate has a majority support and that voter's ballots are never not considered in deciding the winner due to voting their actual preferences.

In our current paper ballot system, it would simply be a matter of having first, second, and third choice slots to the right of each candidate and having voters fill in their first, second, and third choices.  Voters may choose not to fill in a complete ballot, but it is to their advantage to avoid an "exhausted ballot" to do so.  Currently anybody who votes for a third place candidate automatically has their ballot "exhausted", not influencing the outcome of the election, and in a large field of candidates, particularly non-partisan races, and also very often in close partisan races, a minority of support may only be needed to win.  We try to get around this issue only for non-partisan races by holding two elections where if there is no majority in the primary, we take the top two, even if their total isn't a majority themselves.  IRV solves this problem by not needing to have a whole second election and by eliminating the last place candidate in repetition until a majority is attained.  In our case, we'd move the first and then only election to the general election which has more participation.  To learn more about how it works and where it is used, fairvote dot org slash irv is a good place to read up on it.

Why I'm supporting IRV

Currently, the two major reforms I am working on now are IRV and Public Financing.  Spencer Burton is already leading the Public Financing effort, so I'm taking the lead on the effort for IRV by shepharding the developing mass-movement around it.  Many people during the election approached me personally and wanted to get involved to support IRV, and so we're raising money and developing coalitions.  More on that later, but I want to talk about why it is needed first.

Why IRV is needed and other auxiliary nice-to-have benefits

IRV is needed because:

  • It accurately represents people's desires, improving on the rudimentary, simple plurality system we've been using for hundreds of years.

  • It saves money because it eliminates the need to have some but not all primary elections because all local elections are non-partisan already, obviating the need for partisan primaries, and in our case, public financing is cheaper since successul campaigns using public financing have so far required runoff elections, doubling the cost.

  • It improves the political climate by making negative campaigning a huge strategic liability, because with so many options to go above you, it is unwise to do personal attacks: while negative campaigning hurts you less than it hurts your opponent, the positive opponents surpass both you and your primary opponent in public support.

  • It allows majority support of elected candidates in diverse races that we often see in Portland while at the same time enhancing opportunities for traditionally disenfranchised communities like women.

  • It increases voter enfranchisement by moving candidates elections to the general election, doubling turnout of those who will be voting, as normally we have very few runoffs, two in the last decade, for example.

  • It increases the likelihood that our votes do affect the outcome for those who vote for up and coming parties and candidates by not requiring that we vote for one of the apparent top two since we normally only get a first choice.

IRV or Ranked Choice Voting in Oregon already established

IRV is a non-partisan good government majoritarian reform intended to upgrade our 300 year old election system that currently only allows first choice preferences to be noted by allowing people to rank their candidates in order of preference, first, second, and third. Over 100 years ago in 1908 by one of the first initiative ballot measures, Oregon voters already approved preference voting and proportional representation if enacted by law which is now encoded in Article II, Section 16 of the Oregon Constitution.  This allows the state and home rule chartered entities such as counties and cities to implement it without needing additional authorization.

Current Status of IRV campaign

In the past, under Secretary of State Bradbury, John Lindback, the former Director of Elections was strangely an opponent of IRV elections, blocking efforts at the state level to make things easier for county clerks by standardizing how IRV elections would be implemented state-wide, given that it's already in our Constitution.  He also opposed it by asserting state law overrides the Oregon Constitution, but the state law he invoked doesn't actually oppose IRV elections, the language doesn't contradict the Oregon Constitution to a reasonable reading and statutes can't contradict the Oregon Constitution anyways and be enforcable even if what he argued was true.  In any case, Lindback is now back out of state and we have a new Director of Elections, Steve Trout, under Kate Brown, my former opponent.  At first, we were cautious when dealing with Trout, but both he and Brown are supporters of good government reforms such as IRV and have been on the record supporting the idea, unwilling to stand in the way of honest government reforms.  This is refreshing because the main reason I ran against her was because Bradbury was a particularly partisan Secretary of State and I was concerned Brown might repeat that.  It's refreshing to be pleasantly surprised.  Just last week I was talking to Trout about how IRV as used in San Francisco (which allows up to three rankings) was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  It's nice having well-educated administrators in Salem to talk to.  Right now we're building our grassroots support through small donor fundraising and outreach, having amassed well over a thousand donors through direct outreach on the street and door to door and we're in the process of building official coalitions and splitting off the group since it is a truly non-partisan reform that has wide appeal from all aspects of the political spectrum from any place good government is a critical issue.  The Democratic Party State Platform and Election Integrity Caucus, the Oregon Pirate Party, many Libertarians, the Oregon Education Association, Alliance for Democracy, and many others advocate ranked instant runoff voting, and in recent elections the Republicans have ironically badly lost elections that could be considered spoiled by the Constitution and Libertarian Parties.  Why they haven't supported good government reforms such as IRV is striking to me, since one could cogently argue that they lost the gubernatorial race and the US Senate race for this very reason.  One reason I think they don't is that they don't actually believe that good elections lead to more conservative candidates and they are looking at the higher-order influence of real election reform and see it working against corporate interests.

Plan to implement IRV

Our current plan is to get the city charter review committee to recommend the city commission's referring a ballot measure to the voters to amend the city charter.  If we run into any issues there, we'll file a petition and start collecting signatures.  In any case, public outreach and voter education is crucial to winning campaigns such as this and seeing it successful in the long-term.  Organizations like Fair Vote dot org are very effective in helping the advise local campaigns on these facets and we have access to established local experts such as myself, Dan Meek, Fillard Rhyne, David Delk, Paul Gronke, Janice Thompson, and Blair Bobier to help us as a community be educated.  One issue we had was that Amanda Fritz was elected using public financing and ironically didn't want to eliminate the two-stage runoff system because she got twice as much funds to help in her campaign for her own voter outreach.  Now that public campaign financing didn't pass, we're confident she will see the problem with requiring candidates and the city and county to spend twice as much money for elections.  When you have to raise money twice, it sure can be a drag.  We've already talked to some members of the Charter Review Committee and have some strong support already there on the inside, so we're probably not going to need to even bother getting our own people on that committee, which was a consideration at first.  All in all, we're progressing steadily, have no more state road blocks, and are excited for the future of the campaign.  If you want to donate toward it, please visit click the donate button and type irv in the canvasser field to ensure we earmark it appropriately so it gets to our soon-to-be-spun-off committee.

IRV implemented elsewhere and the impact on progressive politics

There are many jurisdictions which have already implemented this reform.  Australia uses it to elect an entire house.  Cambridge, MA uses a multi-seat form called Single Transferable Voting to elect their city council -- which is actually the a good form I'd like to talk about later as a further stepping stone on the path to better elections.  The not-that-progressive Liberal Democrats gained major influence in the recent UK elections based on their support of Alternative Vote, which is another name for IRV or Ranked Choice Voting based on the success of IRV as implemented in London already.  In jurisdictions with meaningful election reform Green Parties are seeing incredible victories in Europe.  In Germany die Gruenen "Realos" are winning state governorships for the first time ever and becoming coalition partners in (for Germany) highly conservative states.  The Libyan and other Wars, Fukushima incident, global warming and the success of Feed-In Tariffs, a Green Party proposal some of my friends are trying to implement here (Oregonians for Renewable Energy), have made the Greens highly popular in Germany.  Also, in France, despite having a not as good election system, the Europe Ecologie Green Party alliance has led to additional success in France, going from a few percent to 15% of the vote in European Parliament in PR party-list elections, despite having a quite terrible election system (top two and plurality) at the local level in France.  We've seen how dramatic election reform has empowered serious reform to take place around the world and now this is happening in the US.  Notably, San Francisco (San Francisco County) and Berkeley and Oakland (Alameda County) are paving the way on the West Coast.  Oakland recently had an incredibly successful election where a large number of candidates and voices in an election elected a minority candidate where in plurality elections a more reactionary white person would have won.  The Greens paved the way for this reform there through major help of Green SF City Commissioner Matt Gonzalez, a recent running mate for Ralph Nader's Independent run.  The system was so successful other jurisdictions began adopting it.  This is the model we'd like to see happen in Oregon, local elections lead to expansion as people are educated about the benefits of the system.

Add-on reforms that work together

Eventually, IRV too could pave the way for serious reform of the party system in Oregon by allowing people to run as candidates without the backing of a major party. In many places, there is a push to do non-partisan elections, and one way business interests have approved of is called "top two" voting, which allows them to buy the top two candidates right away and ignore progressive candidates the rest of the election cycle as the media focuses on their favored candidates creating a hardened spoiler strategy system that benefits the monied.  This passed in California and Washington with massive corporate, reactionary support, but failed in Oregon by a two to one margin. It does make sense to go non-partisan, though and IRV elections allow a meaningful general election without spoiling that can eliminate the primary run both by general top two and partisan ballots.  In IRV, you can vote third place for one of the top two corporate candidates while keeping your progressive choices first and second, making sure that no matter how many candidates the corporatists and corporate media back, you will have your vote counted while still being able to express true support for one or two principled candidates.

We are not pursuing Single-Transferable Voting in Portland at first because we have single-seat commissioner positions.  When IRV is enacted here, we'd like to take that issue up at a later date because as Janice Thompson of Common Cause noted, minority representation and proportional representation are major historical issues in on the Portland Council.  Also, when IRV is enacted, it will be much cheaper to implement public financing.  Successful public financing campaigns in this city, of which we've only had one with Amanda Fritz, required a runoff election, doubling the cost of public financing in those situations.  I'm also involved with the campaign to put public financing back on the ballot since it lost so narrowly due to in our opinion a perfect storm of ballot title, and political climate issues.  Eventually, too, I'd like to see none of the above options on the ballot, but that's mainly required in places that haven't implemented IRV that itself opens up races to more than two people.

Seth Woolley's Blog

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