Monday, May 24, 2010

The distorted "backlash" against IRV -- The Sunnyvale Example

Updated June 19, 2010

IRV opponent Joyce McCloy is behind an anti-instant runoff voting blog with a simple modus operandi: highlight links to webpages that might discredit instant runoff voting and its advocates. This "evidence" tpically is incomplete, deceptive or just not true. But those seeking to seed doubt about change only need for it to appear possibly true.

Today's screed about a new alleged "repeal" of IRV was a good example. As Ms. McCloy knows, IRV in recent decades has been repealed in two and only two governmental jurisdictions in the United States: Pierce County (WA) and Burlington (VT). Both of these repeals were disappointing to advocates, of course, but there was a context to them (see more on Pierce County and on Burlington).

And that's it. No other city has repealed IRV even as more cities, organizations and colleges keep using IRV every year. Ms. McCloy knows that Aspen (CO) hasn't repealed IRV, but she says it has because voters narrowly failed to pass a non-binding advisory question to keep it. She knows that Georgetown University uses IRV, but she says it's been repealed because students didn't use it for a single election in early 2009 (and never mind IRV's ongoing and growing use in nearly 60 colleges and universities, including adoptions in the past year year at colleges like Cornell, Brown and Brandeis). She knows that Cary (NC) didn't repeal IRV (rather it had used IRV in a one-time pilot in 2007), but she says it did. And so on.

Today she's excited about Sunnyvale, California. This year, based on a rule adopted by a prior council, the Sunnyvale might city council would have used instant runoff voting within if at least three members of its seven-member city council had run mayor. Such small-scale uses of IRV can be interesting to consider, but with at least three candidates (all councilors) and only seven councilors with votes (including the three candidates), things can get tricky - tie votes, say, and efforts to outsmart colleagues.

So in what seems like a very sensible decision that IRV advocates would be quick to support, Sunnyvale's city council decided to change its rule to use IRV for these internal elections of the council choosing the mayor in the future. But does this mean Sunnyvale has "repealed" IRV and that supporters of the change think IRV's too confusing as a system? Joyce McCloy has added Sunnyvale to her litany of "repeals" in communications, but consider this quote from a thoughtful blogpost by one of the backers of the change, Sunnyvale city councilor Jim Griffith:

First off, while ranked-choice (or instant run-off) voting is terrific for general elections or when you have a lot of candidates to choose from, it doesn’t work well with a small number of voters and a small number of candidates (in our case, 7 voters, 3 candidates). There’s a lot of opportunity for game-playing, plus a good chance of an end result that many members of the public simply won’t understand. Neither of those serve the public good, so I wanted to get rid of the ranked-choice option

Joyce McCloy in her post bolds a quote from Councilmember Griffith as if he is anti-IRV when in fact he thinks IRV is "terrific" for general elections. Sadly, however, don't hold your breath waiting for corrections to her blog. A website URL can't be wrong or misleading, right?

Addendum, May 25: I received an email from Sunnyvale city councilor Jim Griffith. He expressed appreciation for my post and clarified that in fact the Sunnyvale city council never used IRV. While there might have been three councilors seeking to be mayor this year, only two ended up doing so. But the potential choice among three councilors led to the council sensibly deciding that a binding IRV vote with only seven voters choosing among three or more candidates (all of whom also would be among the seven voters) wasn't appropriate. Griffith also reiterated his support for IRV for general elections.