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Political Reform Blog

A Blog from New America's Political Reform Program

Instant Runoff Voting Empowers Communities of Color

Published:  May 18, 2010

A panel of political experts convened to advise citizens and candidates how to campaign under an Instant Runoff Voting system all agreed that IRV has cut down on negative campaigning in San Francisco and has forced candidates to broaden their efforts to include outreach to communities often ignored in political contests.

A New of Era of Politics,” a panel discussion presented by the Political Reform Program and Oakland Rising, brought elected officials, journalists, candidates, community activists and the simply curious to Oakland’s Preservation Park on Thursday, May 13. The motivation behind the event was to have those most familiar with San Francisco’s Instant Runoff Voting share the benefit of their experience with East Bay candidates who will be campaigning with IRV for the first time this year. Oakland, San Leandro and Berkeley are all gearing up for their first experience with IRV, which is also known as Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV, in the Bay Area.

“Communities of color have to be considered with IRV,” declared Oakland Rising’s Executive Director Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont at the outset of the program, a notion echoed by the other panelists. Tim Redmond, editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian said that IRV forces candidates to “go out to get votes places you might not have” with the old system of voting. Political consultant Jim Stearns said IRV compels campaigns to “go to every demographic.”

“You do have a lot less negative campaigning” with IRV said Phil Ting, San Francisco’s elected Assessor Recorder. The Guardian’s Tim Redmond noted how one race in San Francisco drew a slew of candidates but that IRV “turned what could have been an ugly race into a civil affair.” Political consultant Jon Gollinger said that with IRV there is “more investment in democracy” because more people are participating in decisive elections and are voting for winning candidates.

With the old two round runoff system, communities had to worry that their votes would be split among similar candidates. IRV solves this problem by allowing voters to rank their choices and to essentially pool their votes so that no candidate acts as a “spoiler” for another. Under the old system, if you voted for the candidate you liked most you might wind up electing the candidate you liked least. Not so with IRV. The new voting method keeps “communities enfranchised,” according to Phil Ting, who said that IRV has allowed Chinese-American candidates in San Francisco to compete against each other without fear that the Chinese-American community would split their votes and lose representation.

Critics of IRV have charged that it is too complex for voters to handle and that its use would lead to an array of problems. But David Noyola, the former chief of staff to the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said that the “doom and gloom scenario has not borne out.” Phil Ting pointed to an exit poll conducted by San Francisco State University which showed “zero confusion” on the part of voters. And Jim Stearns, who had been adamantly opposed to IRV, admitted that he now likes it.

A video of the entire presentation is available on the Political Reform Program website.

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