I think I’m like a lot of voters in Pierce County.
I haven’t thought about instant runoff voting since I voted for last year’s charter amendment that switched most county offices to that type of election. Actually, I didn’t think that much about it before I voted for it.
Then I saw the minutes from a meeting of something called the Ranked Choice Voting Blue Ribbon Review Panel. It’s helping county Auditor Pat McCarthy make decisions about how these elections will be run. One issue is how and when to release results to the public.
Of course she’ll release final results at the end of the two-week process of opening ballots and counting them. But how often between election night and those final results should she give out partial results?
I think it is an easy decision – release results as you always have. That’s a couple of times on election night and every day that ballots are counted. That’s what we’re all used to and that’s what promotes confidence in the process. The buzz phrase is “transparency.”
But McCarthy and her advisers say it isn’t that simple.
Here’s where I am obligated to stop and try to explain how instant runoff voting – or its latest name “ranked choice voting” – works.
First, there will be no primary in the races for county executive, sheriff, assessor-treasurer and four council seats. All county candidates will appear together on a November ballot that will be separate from the traditional ballot holding candidates for president, Congress, Legislature, governor and other statewide elected offices.
Voters pick one candidate in each race. But they also can give another candidate their second preference and a third candidate their third preference – essentially ranking them.
If one candidate gets a majority, that person wins. If not, the candidate with the lowest total is knocked out and the vote-counter distributes the second choices of that candidate’s supporters to the surviving candidates.
If there is still no majority winner, then the next-lowest candidate is dropped and the process is repeated until someone has a majority.
It might be instant but it is not simple. As each new batch of ballots is processed, the results can change much more than they do with traditional voting.
For example, the fourth candidate in a field of four could get knocked out in the election-night count. The computer would look for the second choice of that candidate’s voters and apply them to the three other candidates. But as more mail ballots arrive and are tossed into the mix, that last-place candidate could move up and another candidate could fall to fourth place. Then that candidate’s second-choice votes are distributed to the other candidates.
Traditional vote counting is cumulative. That is, counters don’t recount the ballots they counted on the first day but instead add ballots as they come in. But with ranked choice, counters may have to relook at all of the ballots with each count.
One option is to wait until the end to apply the algorithm. But will voters – and newsies like me – tolerate a two-week delay in finding out who is leading?
Another is to release the tally of first-choice votes only. If someone is getting more than 50 percent, we’ll all know they are winning. If not, we can speculate as to how the second-choice votes might fall.
Finally, the county could release ranked results every day and let the candidates live with the agony of leading one day but losing the next. That too carries the risk of making voters suspicious about what’s going on at the vote center (think Gregoire v. Rossi).
McCarthy said she doesn’t want to wait until the very end but isn’t sure how many times during the vote counting to calculate and release ranked results. A decision has to be made soon.
“Welcome to our world,” she said.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657