A Brief History of Instant Runoff Voting in Urbana Municipal Elections

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examine the vitality of our local electoral system. The health
of a democracy can be measured by the number of candidates
who run for office, the number of candidates who
challenge incumbent office holders, the number of parties
that run candidates in elections, the diversity of perspectives
on issues expressed during campaigns, and the extent of
voter participation in elections. On all of these fronts
Urbana has experienced significant declines during the last
four election cycles 1993- 2005. During this period only
18% of primary races and 55.5 % of general election races
were contested; no third party candidates ran for office;
20.7 % of register voters turned out for the 2005 mayoral
primary race; and voter participation in general city elections
steadily declined from 34.4% (1993) to 21.4% (1997)
to 18.8% (2001) to 12.5% in 2005.
The group learned that instant runoff voting (IRV) has
invigorated local democracy in Takoma Park, Md; Henderson,
NC; and Burlington, Vt. Exit polls showed that a very
high percentage of first time IRV election participants understood
the system “well or very well” and preferred IRV to the
city’s prior system. IRV also tended to encourage more candidates
to run for office, reduced the number of uncontested
races, resulted in more parties submitting candidates for
election, broadened the number of perspectives expressed
on campaign issues, and increased voter participation in the
electoral process. “This is just what Urbana needs,” they concluded,
and formed a grassroots organization called Urbana
Citizens for Instant Runoff Voting.
UC-IRV created a brochure and web site (www.IRVforUrbana.
net). Delegates met with the Mayor and City Council
individually to express concerns about the single plurality
voting system used in Urbana municipal elections and the
desire to replace it with IRV. They did not ask the civic body
to initiate this change but instead opted to circulate a community-
wide petition calling for a “binding” referendum on
IRV to be placed on Urbana’s upcoming general election ballot.
The group would have an opportunity to educate citizens
about IRV as they circulated petitions.
Members of UC-IRV met with Champaign County Clerk
Mark Sheldon who provided them with petitioning process
guidelines. He conveyed that the IRV system is easy to
understand and use and that his office could prepare the ballot-
counting software at no expense to the city. Unfortunately,
Sheldon misinterpreted the state election code and underestimated
the number of signatures required to place a binding
referendum on the ballot. He told UI-IRV that 766 signatures
were required when the true number was just over
2000. 766 was the number of signatures required for a nonbinding
or advisory referendum.
Over the following three months IRV advocates representing
a variety of local political parties collected signatures
door-to-door and at a variety of community venues.
They obtained over 1,000 signatures and filed the petitions
in the City Clerk’s office as was required.
One day before the petition “challenge period” ended,
Al Klein, Vice-President of the local Democratic Party,
challenged the petitions on three separate grounds: an
inadequate number of signatures were collected; the language
of the petition was vague and confusing; and a fundamental
change in the election system could not be made
through a citizen petitioning process. An Electoral Board
was constituted to review these challenges; its members
were the Mayor (chair), the City Clerk, and a City Council
member—all Democrats. The Board ruled in favor of Klein
solely on the basis that inadequate signatures had been
collected. Refusing to rule on the other challenges, the
Board left it unclear whether future petitions could be
challenged on one or both of those grounds. Later the
same day, Klein told a representative from UC-IRV that he
would use “every legal means available” to block such a
referendum in the future, raising the specter of expensive
legal battles if UC-IRV persisted.
At this point, UC-IRV proposed that the Mayor and/or
City Council appoint a task force of key city and county
officials as well as citizens to identify the legal and technical
requirements necessary to place a binding IRV referendum
before the voters. This proposal was rejected by the
Mayor and several City Council members. They argued
that all the work should be done by UC-IRV itself. UC-IRV
worried that without participation by key city and county
officials, a petition would be vulnerable once again to legal
and/or technical challenges.
It was only after the above initiatives had been rebuffed
that UC-IRV decided to use the Annual Township meeting to
place an “advisory” referendum before the voters. The decision
was based, in part, on the success that other local grassroots
groups had experienced with this process during the
past two years. This included local anti-war activists placing
advisory referenda before the voters in 2006 that resulted in
strong votes to “bring the troops home from Iraq immediately”
and to “impeach Bush and Cheney.” Publicity given the
referenda in the press helped generate the community’s
response. While a binding referendum was preferable, UCIRV
reasoned that an advisory referendum would at least get
IRV and the broader issue of electoral reform into the spotlight
for community review and discussion.
Learning of these plans, local Democrats rounded up a
group of party loyalists to attend the Annual Township
meeting and block any advisory referenda from being
placed on the ballot by controlling the meeting’s agenda.
Not expecting opposition to a “non-binding” referendum,
UC-IRV had not made a similar effort to gather supporters
and was narrowly defeated at the meeting.
Frustrated but not dissuaded, UC-IRV discovered that
any group of citizens can call a Special Township Meeting
to deal with an issue of concern to citizens of the Township.
Furthermore, the agenda for such a meeting can not
be altered once the meeting is scheduled. The request for
the meeting was filed appropriately and a meeting to consider
placing an advisory IRV referendum on the fall ballot
was scheduled for June 30, 2008.
This action by UC-IRV led the Mayor to undertake retaliatory
action. Knowing that no more than three advisory referenda
could be placed on the upcoming fall ballot, she convened
a meeting of the Township Board on June 16 and proposed
three advisory referenda of her own. Uncomfortable
with placing three referenda on the ballot that evening and
thereby denying UC-IRV the opportunity to make its case at
the upcoming Special Township Meeting, members of the
Town Board approved placing only one referendum on the
ballot leaving space for two more.
After the Mayor’s failed attempt to sabotage the Special
Township Meeting ahead of time, local Democrats, spearheaded
by the Mayor herself, once again cranked up their
political machine and rounded up approximately 100
party loyalists and other sympathizers to attend the meeting.
At the meeting, they voted, first, to limit debate, and
second, to defeat the placing of an IRV advisory referendum
before Urbana voters at large.
This action by a small but organized group of party followers
disenfranchised Urbana citizens as a whole by denying
them an opportunity to vote on electoral reform in the
fall. By preventing the referendum from being on the ballot,
the action also undermined the efforts of UC-IRV to generate
wide community discussion of electoral reform before the
election some four months away. Finally, it denied the City
Council an opportunity to get a reading on how the community
at large feels about the need for electoral reform.
These last points cannot be emphasized too strongly. By
bringing issues affecting the welfare of the public to the
forefront of community attention, referenda, binding or
advisory, provide a strong spur to public education. Voters
become motivated to learn more about the issues because
they will have a chance to vote on them. Without an
opportunity to vote, they have less incentive to invest the
time and energy required to develop positions on the
issues. Unfortunately, the press, too, typically has less
incentive to cover the issues. This makes the job of raising
public consciousness more difficult for advocates of
change. Those in positions of power who resist change
know this and thus often oppose referenda where the people
themselves have an opportunity to express their will
directly. Is it because local Democrats worry that IRV or
some other electoral reform will threaten their influence
and power that they have opposed public referenda on
IRV? This is something the reader should consider.
In an editorial published in the News Gazette on July 4,
the editors stated that “it’s time to bring the curtain down on
special meetings of Cunningham Township” and “packing
audiences to produce desired results…” Later, the editors
suggested that if advocates of IRV are serious about this idea,
“they’ll start a petition drive and drop this game-playing with
township law.” It is clear that the editors did not know the
full history of UC-IRV’s efforts to achieve a referendum. UCIRV
had already conducted a petition drive, had the initiative
blocked, and been threatened with expensive legal challenges
if they tried to do the same again!
The last step, to date, in this saga occurred on July 7
when the Mayor of Urbana initiated action to formally
eliminate any chance for a citizen’s group to introduce
advisory referenda on the general election ballot in
November. She did this by again calling a meeting of the
Township Board and recommending that two advisory referenda
be placed in the remaining slots on the ballot. One
dealt with national health care policy and the other with
the system of elections used in Cunningham Township
(i.e., Urbana). The latter asks voters, “Do you support
keeping the current system for local elections so that each
voter casts one vote for the candidate they prefer and the
candidate who gets the most votes wins?”
When presented with the mayor’s recommendation,
Township Board members did not insist on communitywide
discussion and debate of the issues addressed before
placing the referenda on the ballot as they had with UCIRV;
neither did they make any provision for scheduling
such discussions and debates to educate the public after
the referenda were placed on the ballot—during the
upcoming 2-3 months. Instead, they simply voted unanimously
to support her request, and the referenda were
placed on the ballot.
UC-IRV plans to continue its efforts to encourage the
public to learn more about the current electoral system
and how local democracy might be enhanced by replacing
this system with instant runoff voting. Readers who are
interested in becoming involved should contact the committee
at voteIRV@comcast.com. To learn more about IRV
itself see www.fairvote.org . Please consider joining UCIRV
or attending events it sponsors in the coming months.

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