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Political Reform Blog

A Blog from New America's Political Reform Program

Oakland City Council Approves Instant Runoff Voting

Published:  January 6, 2010
The Oakland City Council took a major step towards implementing instant runoff voting late last night at a boisterous council meeting packed with IRV supporters. In 2006, Oakland voters overwhelmingly supported Measure O which amended the city charter to establish instant runoff voting as the city’s method for electing its local officials. It took several years for all the pieces to fall in place, including state approval of the voting machines and software necessary to conduct IRV elections. The IRV provision of the Oakland City Charter is unique in that it is dependent upon the readiness of the county Registrar of Voters to administer an IRV election on behalf of the city. On December 4, the Secretary of State gave the go-ahead for Alameda County to use the IRV voting equipment and this allowed the county Registrar to say, in conformance with the city charter, that he was able to conduct IRV elections. The Registrar’s stated ability to conduct an IRV election satisfied the conditions of the city charter and, from a legal perspective, Oakland was good to go at that point. Those following the Oakland saga, however, knew that forces both seen and unseen were trying to undermine both the will of the voters and the law of the land. In a sense, the Council’s “approval” of IRV on Tuesday night was unnecessary. The city’s charter is clear: once the Registrar is ready, IRV must be used. Tuesday’s vote was really a technical one—whether or not to authorize the city to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the other cities within the county using IRV to allocate the costs of conducting elections. But in reality, the vote was a litmus test: would the council uphold the law or thwart the will of the voters? Despite a recent opinion by the Oakland City Attorney saying the city had no choice but to use IRV, some council members were still balking at the switch to this voting method. Going into Tuesday’s meeting, the outcome was far from certain. The eight member council appeared to be split 4-4 on the issue and Mayor Dellums has stuck to a policy of not exercising his right to break ties. Given the uncertainty of the outcome and the recalcitrance of the Council, a number of prominent Oakland activists, including two elected officials, sent a letter to the city through an attorney last month. The letter was clearly a shot across the bow. If Oakland failed to follow the charter and implement IRV, the city would be sued. A broad coalition of energized IRV supporters packed the city’s ornate council chambers for the 7 pm agenda item. The public comment period lasted about two hours as speaker after speaker implored the council to respect the voter mandate which authorized instant runoff voting. Those speaking reflected the diversity of Oakland—Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, union members, environmentalists, youth and elders—while others in the audience held up homemade signs in support. The turning point in the evening came when Council Member Desley Brooks announced her support for IRV. Her position had been unknown and her support meant that IRV had the fifth vote necessary to move forward. When Brooks announced her support, the crowd reacted with cheers and applause. Brooks paused to let the noise subside and then said “you may not be cheering when you hear the rest of what I have to say.” Brooks then went on to speak eloquently about the need to engage more of Oakland—and more of Oakland’s disenfranchised communities—in the electoral process. The 69% of the voters who voted “yes” for IRV do not represent 69% of the community, Brooks noted. There are far too many people who are not registered to vote and many of those who are registered still do not show up at the ballot box. Brooks challenged those supporting IRV to do more to expand the electorate. Council Member Larry Reid, another wild card, then announced his support for IRV, perhaps inspired by Brooks’ speech. As expected, Council Members Jean Quan, Pat Kerrighan, Nancy Nadel and Rebecca Kaplan, all long-time IRV supporters, voted in favor. That left only two members, Council President Jane Brunner and Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente, opposing the motion. As part of the successful motion, the council directed that the status of the city’s IRV education plan be brought before the council on a monthly basis. Following the vote, activists gathered outside the council chambers, celebrated their victory, and were already making their own plans for grassroots education and outreach.

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