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Friday, August 7, 2009

The RCV Battle in Pierce County

In 2006, the Pierce County, in Washington state, (home to Tacoma) government held their once in a decade Pierce County Charter Review. This is a sort of Constitutional Convention when a commission is elected and makes suggestions to improve the Constitution. Those suggestions are then put on the next ballot as an initiative and if they are approved by the voters, they become a parter of the Constitutional Charter. For this Pierce County elects a group of seven members called the Pierce County Charter Commission.

Among this commission was a local business executive and Libertarian, Kelly Haughton. Mr. Haughton was a libertarian by political philosophy and political affiliation. Mr. Haughton began to think about ways in which people like him could get more involved in the process. He thought about ways in which disenfranchised voters would be more motivated to come out. There is a voting system that's very popular in countries like Australia and Ireland called Ranked Choice Voting. RCV is a method of voting in which voters rank their preferences.

(RCV) is the American English term for a voting system used for single-winner
, in which voters rank candidates in an order of preference. If no candidate is the first preference of a majority of voters, the candidate with the fewest number of first preference rankings is eliminated and that candidate's ballots are redistributed at full value to the remaining candidates according to the next ranking on each ballot. This process is repeated until one candidate obtains a majority of votes among candidates not eliminated. The term "instant runoff" is used because the method is said to simulate a series of runoff elections tallied in rounds, as in an exhaustive ballot election.[1]

The other unique feature of RCV is that it combines the primary and general election into one. As such, there are often multiple candidates from multiple parties on the ballot all at once. The idea was debated and then recommended to the Pierce County Board of Elections and ultimately put on the ballot for initiative in November of 2006. One of the hallmarks of RCV is that it gives minority parties a better chance of showing in elections. Here's why. Let's look at the Presidential elections as an example. A lot in 2000, and also in 2004, many Democrats complained that voting for Ralph Nader was self defeating because it took votes away from the Democratic candidate. Democrats believed that the overwhelming number of Nader voters would have voted for the Democrat. Since Nader had no chance to win, all a vote did for him was take a vote away from whoever was the Democratic candidate. In RCV, such a situation would happen. In the infamous 2000 Florida vote, no one got more than 50%. Had RCV been around, all the Nader voters would have eventually gone to Gore as the lesser candidates gave away their votes to the second choice, as the rules state. As such, if the Democrats are right, Al Gore would have won in 2000 if RCV was being implemented.

In 2006, RCV was supported by a loose coalition of third parties and independent voters. Meanwhile, much of the Democratic and Republican establishment opposed the initiative. Pierce County is a great springboard for an idea like RCV. That's because Pierce is a swing district with plenty of independents. The vote in November passed RCV by a margin of 53-47.

So, the County began to prepare for its first RCV election to be scheduled in November of 2008. Then, in the winter of 2007, the County Council weighed in. The Council is the County's legislative body. Just as the Board of Elections has the right to add an initiative to the ballot so to does the County Council. The Council approved a measure that would put an initiative on the November 2007 ballot to delay the implementation of RCV until November of 2010. Coincidentally, OR NOT, 4 of the 7 Council members were going to be on the November 2008 ballot.

So, once again, the two sides faced off again. This time the voters appeared to annoyed by having the same issue on the ballot. This time, by a vote of about two to one the voters rejected postponing RCV in November of 2008.

The November of 2008 election went off reasonably well. Six of the seven county wide offices had higher voter turn out than in 2004. All candidates were included in all debates for every office. It was common to have three and four candidates get at least ten percent of the vote. It was not without problems. Counting the ballots took longer than with normal ballotting. It was also more expensive, however most of that expensive involved implementing a new computer software system to count RCV ballots. Most importantly, the dynamics of campaigning changed. A politician on the ballot that year summed it up perfectly when they said.

In a four way race, it's hard to figure out who to attack

Ironically enough, the third party candidates were underrepresented in 2008. As Mr. Haughton explained, most of the potential candidates had been worn out campaigning for implementation of RCV in both 2006 and 2007. So, the hope from supporters is that third parties will make a bigger showing come November of 2010. Of course, things may not get that far.

Once again, The Pierce County Council has passed a measure to put on the ballot an initiative to remove RCV as the voting mechanism from the County Charter. After two bites at the apple, so to speak, the forces against RCV are hoping that third time's the charm. All around Pierce County, local elections will be held in November of 2009. On those ballots will be three amendments, and amendment number three will repeal RCV voting.

Once again, it appears that RCV has united Democrats and Republicans as the Council has again put this to a vote. One of the proponents of amendment 3 is Council member Shawn Bunney. Mr. Bunney didn't return a phone call and email. Propenents cite costs and complexity but it's important to note that the arguments haven't really changed since this was first put to the vote nearly three years ago.

Furthermore, there may be some cynical politcking involved as well. One of the groups that will help promote amendment three (along with the other two) is the Pierce County Better Government League. A major advocate of the Pierce County Better Government League is Mark Lindquist. Lindquist is currently the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney of Pierce County. His current boss, Gerry Horne, is rumored to be about to announce his retirement. Horne has stated this about Lindquist.

Mark Lindquist has distinguished himself as a strong leader in the prosecutor’s office

It is widely believed that Horne would like Lindquist to succeed him. Yet, the choice would be of the Pierce County Council. Lindquist is a Democrat and the Council is 5-2 Republican. So, it's entirely possible that Lindquist is on board to curry favor with the Republican Council. Lindquist hasn't yet responded to an email either.

Ultimately, the motivations are really beside the point. The voters have spoken TWICE, and the voters of Pierce County have voted overwhelmingly for RCV. Now, the establishment, which fears that this weakens their advantage, is attempting a war of attrition. The establishment has the money and the organization. More than that, if the independents and third party supporters spend all their time defending RCV, they will have little left for the actual elections. That's what happened in 2008, and another bruising fight in 2009 will likely mean third party candidates will have little energy left to run in 2010. Whatever you think of RCV, the voters have decided more than once that in Pierce County they want it. At this point, the establishment is cynically trying to wear down forces less powerful, less organized, and less financed than them in an attempt to finally get the vote they want. RCV passed in 2006. It was affirmed in 2007, and that still isn't enough. Now, members of the council, facing a tough re election, are using their powers to create a frivilous ballot initiative that has already been viewed by the voters twice in the last three years. Whatever you think of the policy, this is exactly the sort of politics that turns voters off.


United Citizens Council said...

I will have to think about it.

limo said...

This is a sort of constitutional convention....

Dale Sheldon said...

"In 2006, RCV was supported by a loose coalition of third parties and independent voters."

That's disappointing, since "RCV" is still a strongly two-party dominated electoral method.

"Meanwhile, much of the Democratic and Republican establishment opposed the initiative."

That's also odd, since "RCV" is still a strongly two-party dominated electoral method.

Sounds like everyone involved misunderstands the implications of the system.

mike volpe said...

Listen, if you want to push your voting method, that's fine, but don't misconstrue what RCV is. It is absolutely a much better voting method for minor parties than the current method. I don't know what range voting is, though I will certainly find out, but merely giving prominence to minor parties was not the only consideration. This piece wasn't a debate about which voting method gives the best chance to minor parties. This is about how insiders are trying to beat back a voting system that is a threat to them.

Anonymous said...

Isn't RCV how they vote for the Heisman trophy?

mike volpe said...

It's sort of like the Hesiman though they give points for each of your votes, and they don't drop off the last person and give all their first place votes to who the same person thought should finish in second. This is similar but not exactly the same.

Dale Sheldon said...

Re: to Mike Volpe:

No, I'm afraid it's not a much better method for minor parties. It's is, at best, a marginally better method for minor parties.

If you need an example, look to Australia, which has used this method (IRV, RCV, whatever you want to call it) for decades in its lower house elections. Their lower house is completely dominated by two parties (even though the upper house, chosen using proportional representation, is not).

IRV ("RCV") is better than plurality, sure, but it's better in that it is harder (but not impossible) for a minor party to spoil an election, but only for as long as they stay a minor party; i.e., only as long as they still have no chance of winning the election.

So this would allow minor parties to get bigger (since they have to be bigger before they become spoilers, and being a spoiler is one way that minor parties die), which would perhaps enable them to have a larger influence on the two major parties. But it would not help minor parties actually win elections. This has been shown in theory (all over the website) and in practice (in Australia and elsewhere). supports two (similar) methods, approval voting and score voting, which are spoiler-free, and so (in theory) would allow minor parties to grow without limit (and therefore, have a chance to actually win.)

Dale Sheldon said...

The method used by the Heisman is most-similar to the Borda count vote method; only the ballots are the same.

Many voting methods use a ranked-order ballot; it is not unique to "RCV", which in the US is more commonly known as Instant Runoff Voting, or "IRV".

mike volpe said...

Dale, I'm glad you have passion for your voting system. If you want to get a hold of me, I'll be happy to do a story on it. That said, your criticism is a bit misplaced. First, no voting system will help a third party to overcome the lack of name recognition, funding, and organization that the other two parties have.

Second, helping third parties was NOT the only concern. The folks wanted to make a voting system that give more candidates a voice, more voters to vote, and enfranchise the disenfranchised, and the turn out is evidence of success.

Dale Sheldon said...

Sure, I'd love to provide info for a story! You can reach me at and I've got a lot of good material at my blog on the issue at

broken ladder said...

Dale Sheldon is correct on every point as I see it.

Mike, you said "no voting system will help a third party to overcome the lack of name recognition, funding, and organization that the other two parties have."

But you see, you make that statement from the point of view of being in a plurality system that is two-party dominated. Of course minor parties can't easily get name recognition, funding, etc. when people feel it is futile to vote for them anyway.

Case in point, Ralph Nader in 2000. NES exit poll data showed that 90% of the voters who claimed he was their favorite also claimed to have voted for someone else. He had the funding and the name-recognition to make those people want to see him elected. But with the plurality voting method, it didn't matter. And the same is true of IRV.

In order to break out of that cycle, single-winner methods (since they can't be proportional, by definition) must allow voters to fearlessly support candidates they like better than their favorite front-runner. Score/approval do that; IRV does not. IRV has historically maintained two-party duopoly.

It is noted that helping minor parties is not the main concern. Well, score voting is also much simpler than IRV in essentially every way, and it is more representative/satisfying according to an objective economic metric called "Bayesian regret".