Oakland Trib Article -- Instant runoffs still years away

From: Alan Dechert <dechert_at_gmail_dot_com>
Date: Sat May 21 2005 - 14:34:03 CDT

Instant runoffs still years away
Alameda County can't expect vote software from Diebold until at least 2008
By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

Delivering instant-runoff voting to Alameda County and its cities will cost
just under $1 million - less than half previous estimates - but is unlikely
before the 2008 elections, according to Diebold, the county's voting-machine

Voters in Oakland, San Leandro and most strongly in Berkeley asked for
instant-runoff voting in local elections, and activists recently demanded
that election officials in Alameda County shift more forcefully to the new

But in a recent report to the county and clerks from those cities, Diebold
said the core software in its voting and tabulating machines is on the verge
of obsolescence and is being replaced with a new version.

For now, the firm said, Diebold programmers don't have a clear enough
picture of what instant-runoff software would and would not do.

"What really stood out is they can't proceed until they know what instant
runoff really looks like," said Elaine Ginnold, assistant registrar of
voters for Alameda County. "We need a blueprint so they can go design a

Advocates of instant-runoff voting were heartened by Diebold's offer in the
report to lease ballot-scanning machines to the cities if they choose to
follow the course of Cambridge, Mass., which uses non-Diebold software to
tabulate the votes.

"The fact that Diebold has indicated a willingness to do this is a step
forward for IRV activists," said Kenneth Mostern, an elections consultant
who led the drive to get instant-runoff voting on the Berkeley ballot.

"This is really the first official word we've heard from them, and it is
reasonable," said Chris Jerdonek, California representative of FairVote, an
elections-reform project of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Instant-runoff voting allowsvoters to rank their favorite candidates, so
that even if their first choice loses, they may have a say in electing their
second or third choices.

Unlike standard elections today, in which the candidate with a simple
plurality, or the most votes, wins, a candidate must get a majority to win
an instant-runoff election.

If the top vote-getter in a race for a single political post gets less than
51 percent, the election is decided by second- and third-rank choices.

The computer takes the votes for the lowest vote-getters and awards those
ballots to the next-ranked candidate.

IRV activists still don't understand why programming the computer to
reshuffle those votes would take so long.

The problem, says Diebold, lies in the details, or lack of them. How should
ballots be designed for the likely combination of local instant-runoff
elections and national plurality elections? What should the computers'
internal audit logs look like?

When touch-screen electronic voting machines are equipped with paper-trail
printers, so voters can verify their ballot selections, should the voter's
preferences be listed in order or numbered? How will instant-runoff voting
be handled for disabled voters who use an audio ballot?

Ideally, state and federal officials will answer those questions rather than
have Diebold design answers and find government going a different way, the
report said.

They're not, said Alameda County's Ginnold. She and the three city clerks
are drawing up those rules solely for their jurisdictions, to be approved by
their governing bodies and the Legislature.

"Rather than setting a template for all time and all places, we'd be setting
it up for just the three cities," she said.

Local election officials in California and elsewhere have been slow to
embrace instant-runoff voting because of its potential complexity and new
demands on both voters and pollworkers. But Ginnold sees the new method as
inevitable, at least in her county.

Last week, Keith Carson, president of the county's supervisors, cited his
support for instant-runoff voting in calling for a hearing on whether the
county will buy $5 million in new voting equipment from Diebold.

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.

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