FAQ for Burbank responding to concerns raised about ranked choice voting

To:  members of the Burbank City Council

From:  Steven Hill, elections consultant, FairVote 

Re:  FAQ responding to concerns raised and inaccurate information about ranked choice voting

Dear Burbank City Council,

I testified at Wednesday evening’s hearing on redistricting, attempting to correct the record regarding some information that has been presented to you regarding ranked choice voting. I am one of the architects of the ranked choice voting system being used in Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro, Albany and other cities, and the author of several books on political reform. I co-authored the charter amendments for the RCV cities and then collaborated with three different voting equipment vendors to draft the RCV software specifications, the Secretary of State’s office to ensure testing and state certification of the voting equipment, and the registrars of voters and city clerks to ensure smooth implementation, including voter education.

I have been closely following the recent situation regarding redistricting in Burbank. Below is a short FAQ to respond to questions that have been asked by city councilors, and to correct some inaccurate information that has been presented to you regarding RCV.

Sincerely, all the best,

Steven Hill

1) Is it true that there is no statewide framework for running RCV elections? No, this is incorrect. Registrar Dean Logan stated that there is no framework in the state of California for conducting RCV elections, but in 2014, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen published statewide guidelines for how to run RCV elections. Here is a link to those guidelines  https://votingsystems.cdn.sos.ca.gov/oversight/directives/irv-guidelines.pdf

Apparently Mr. Logan is unaware of this framework. However, as Registrar Logan also made clear in his letter to Burbank’s city clerk, even if there is no statewide framework, charter cities like Burbank have broad powers to enact your own electoral system. That’s why San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro were able to adopt RCV before Secretary Bowen issued the statewide guidelines in 2014. Note that those four cities are in two different counties, so this has nothing to do with a county having previously passed guidelines for RCV elections, as was stated in your hearing. County election administrators are paid by cities to run their elections according to the regulations and laws established by those cities’ charters. Note that if Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro had waited for Alameda County to issue RCV rules before moving forward, it would never have happened. All three cities passed voter initiatives first, and it was the request from these charter cities to the county that led to Alameda County acquiring this voting equipment capability.

2) Are charter cities required by state law to consolidate their elections in the November general election with state and federal races? No, charter cities like Burbank are not required to consolidate your elections with November elections. The city of Redondo Beach, which is a charter city, challenged this state law, SB 415, in court and prevailed, with the result being that this law does not apply to charter cities because of the strong home rule powers of charter cities. Here is a link to an article that documents the outcome of this court decision. However, general law cities (cities that have not formed a charter ratified by the voters) are required to consolidate their elections if voter turnout in those cities falls below a certain threshold in non-November elections. While Burbank is not required to consolidate your elections to November, there are other reasons you may want to continue doing that, such as the increase in voter turnout that comes with November elections. But it is not a legal requirement that you do so. 

3) Is it technologically difficult or expensive for LA County to offer RCV capability in its voting equipment? In the past, this has been a difficult challenge, requiring a lot of technology development, expense and time for state testing and certification. But recently this has become much easier in California. Registrar Logan may be unaware of new developments that would make his ability to add RCV capability much less expensive and time-consuming. The voting equipment vendor Hart Intercivic is currently undergoing testing and certification procedures for new voting equipment, and it has partnered with a third-party vendor, the RCV Resource Center, to include that vendor’s central tabulator as part of a “blended” system. This will add full RCV capability to the existing Hart system. Another vendor ES&S also has partnered with the RCV Resource Center to add full RCV capability to its existing voting equipment. The RCV Resource Center’s central tabulator is standalone third-party hardware and software which can take the ballots scanned by any vendor’s voting equipment, and count them using the RCV algorithm.

If Hart and ES&S can partner with RCV Resource Center, so can LA County, since LA County is also its own vendor. Previously, LA County would have had to self-develop the RCV software and hardware to count RCV ballots. But it no longer needs to do that, which will save LA County a ton of work and expense. To fully explore this pathway, Burbank could ask Registrar Dean Logan if he is willing to partner with the RCV Resource Center – like Hart and ES&S are doing – to add RCV/proportional RCV capability to his voting equipment. Once he realizes that most of the software development and testing for running RCV elections has already been done for him, his response may be different than he has given to you in the past. 

4) Did Governor Newsom veto a bill that would have allowed a city like Burbank to use RCV? This statement was made at your hearing on Wednesday evening, but it is not accurate. Governor Newsom vetoed a bill, SB 212, that would have allowed “general law” cities to use RCV. But Burbank is a charter city, not a general law city, and according to California law charter cities have broad “home rule” discretion to design their elections as they see fit. There are well over 100 charter cities in California that are empowered with this home rule capability. This is why San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Redondo Beach, San Leandro, Albany, and Eureka have been able to adopt RCV. Palm Desert is the only general law city that has adopted RCV, but that was part of a stipulated judgement by a court to settle a voting rights lawsuit.

5) Is it true that there are different types of RCV, and so Burbank should wait to see what LA County does with its voting equipment before committing to a specific type of RCV? For city councils, there are really only two types of RCV — proportional RCV in which candidates are running citywide and multiple candidates get elected, or single-winner RCV within districts, in which one candidate per district is being elected and voters only have one vote. The City Council could create a charter amendment that contains only the bare bones outline of which type of RCV system you prefer, and further empowers the city council to fill in the details much later by ordinance. That could be put on the ballot for Burbank voters to decide. This procedure is similar to how other cities, such as San Leandro, Berkeley and Santa Fe NM, have handled similar situations. Once LA County readies its equipment for RCV, the city council could write the ordinance to comply with any specific parameters established by the county. 

6) Is it true that the voters in Palm Desert using proportional ranked choice voting only had one vote?  No, this is not accurate. This statement was made at Wednesday evening’s hearing, and it reflects a misunderstanding of how proportional RCV works. In Palm Desert, all voters were able to rank as many candidates as they wished. In a proportional RCV election, the majority voting bloc will likely win two out of three seats in a three-seat race, and those voters will see their rankings help elect those two candidates. A minority perspective will likely win the third seat, and voters will see their rankings help elect that single candidate. Compared to district elections, in which all voters only have a single vote that can only help elect a single candidate, proportional RCV allows most voters to contribute to electing more than one candidate. Compared to the current at large “bloc voting” method, in which a cohesive majority voting bloc almost always wins all three of the seats, the minority perspective is able to win its fair share of representation in P-RCV elections.

7) Can Burbank negotiate with the voting rights plaintiff and attorney to use a different remedy than districts, such as proportional RCV?  Yes, most certainly. That is what the cities of Albany and Palm Desert did. The city of Burbank could offer to negotiate with the voting rights plaintiff and attorney, and show how the chance of election by a Latino candidate increases significantly in a P-RCV election in which the citywide Latino population is 84 percent of the election threshold, compared to district elections in which the highest Latino concentration is approximately 33 percent, only 66 percent of the election threshold.

9) How much work and expense would it be for Burbank to run its own election, like Redondo Beach does? And how much would RCV add to that cost? It was stated at Wednesday night’s hearing that Burbank currently pays LA County anywhere from $165,000 to $212,000 per election. A certified vendor like Dominion Voting Systems runs elections for some cities on a “turnkey” basis in which it brings in high speed scanner equipment that can count mail-in ballots rapidly. When the election is over, the vendor takes its equipment and leaves. So Burbank would not have to purchase new voting equipment. Dominion charged the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is similar-sized as Burbank (90,000 people vs 108,000 people), only $25,000 to run the RCV component of its elections. With fewer than 60,000 ballots cast in Burbank’s 2020 election, it seems likely that election costs for a standalone RCV election would be comparable to what Burbank currently pays LA County. Even the threat of running your own elections would put pressure on LA County to adapt its voting equipment for RCV, since it would lose this revenue from running Burbank’s elections, which it uses to pay for its voting equipment and election administration costs.