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New voting system – now what? Pierce County must figure out how to fund, implement instant runoff for 11 positions

AARON CORVIN; The News Tribune

November 11th, 2006

Pierce County, WA - Of all the changes Pierce County voters made to the county charter Tuesday, adopting a new way to elect local officials was perhaps the biggest.

Amendment No. 3 makes 11 county positions – sheriff, executive, auditor, assessor-treasurer and the seven-member council – decided by instant runoff voting. Instead of having a primary to nominate candidates and a general election to decide between finalists, voters will pick a winner, regardless of party, in a single election in November.

They’ll do that by making one candidate their first choice and noting their second or third choices among the other candidates.

If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, and elections officials will look at the second-choice selection of that candidate’s supporters.

Amendment No. 3 requires Auditor Pat McCarthy – the elections chief – to implement an instant runoff voting system by July 2008. McCarthy, who said the time wasn’t right for IRV during the campaign, also said that if voters passed it she would work to make it the best IRV system in the country.

“If this happens,” McCarthy told the Charter Review Commission earlier this year, “we will do it, and we’ll do it to the best of our ability.”

McCarthy could not be reached for comment this week.

McCarthy has said Sequoia Voting Systems, the vendor that provides the county’s vote-tabulating equipment, is working on software to read IRV ballots. However, the software would need to receive state and national certification before it could be used, she said.

Instant runoff voting replaces the pick-a-party system for certain Pierce County offices. It would not apply to the prosecutor or to county judges.

And voters would still have to pick a party in the primary in order to vote in congressional and state elections.

As a result, McCarthy has said, the county will need to create two ballots – one for county offices elected under IRV and another for the county prosecutor, judges, and state and congressional offices.

The cost of implementing IRV is unclear. In October, Executive John Ladenburg, who opposed IRV, proposed setting aside $2 million in the 2007 budget to cover the potential cost of several of the proposed charter amendments, especially IRV.

McCarthy has estimated IRV could cost nearly $3 million to implement, including $2 million for voter education. However, McCarthy has also said numbers won’t be clear until the county digs into setting up the system.

Backers of IRV challenge those estimates.

Kelly Haughton is a Tacoma business executive who pushed for IRV earlier this year when he served on the 21-member Charter Review Commission.

In written testimony he provided to the commission, Haughton said that based on Burlington, Vt.’s experience with IRV this year, “voter education should cost no more than 25 cents per resident, or around $200,000 for Pierce County.”

In an interview this week, Haughton said McCarthy “is perfectly capable of accomplishing” an excellent IRV system.

Haughton added: “This will be the largest implementation, in terms of the number of voters, in the United States.”

Pierce County’s 1980 home-rule charter allows the county to arrange its government any way it wants as long as it isn’t prohibited by state law. County prosecutors have said the county has the latitude to adopt IRV.

Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections for the Secretary of State’s Office, said IRV moves the county and the state into “uncharted territory.” The charter sets up how county government is structured, she said.

“What has never been tested is whether the charter can establish how county officers are elected, how the person attains office,” she said.

It’s unclear whether the Republican or Democratic parties, both of which opposed IRV, will test it in court.

Last week, representatives of the local and state Democratic parties referred the question to each other.

Deryl McCarty, the local Republican chairman, said he doesn’t expect the party to sue. He said the voters have spoken on IRV: “I’m not sure you want to poke your finger in the eye of the voter.”

Originally published: November 11th, 2006 01:00 AM (PST)


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