OAKLAND LOCAL: What's IRV? Civic organizations to educate public on new system

June 1, 2010

As Oakland follows in the footsteps San Francisco took six years ago and switches to ranked-choice voting for this November's election, a diverse pool of organizations are heading voter education campaigns to boost county outreach efforts.

The city of Oakland is paying the Alameda County Registrar of Voters $146,000 to administer a heavily media-based campaign that includes mailers, brochures and videos, according to city clerk LaTonda Simmons. However, foreseeing that the county’s campaign will not reach all demographics, some community groups are – or plan to begin – spreading the word about the new system that allows voters to rank up to three candidates in order of preference and eliminates separate run-off elections.

People of color make up 60 percent of the population in Oakland and many of them may not get the information if they do not have access to the Internet or TV, said Nwamaka Agbo, a campaign director with the Ella Baker Center, which focuses on low-income communities.

“It’s good that we have a media campaign, but I think we also have to meet people on the street and educate them as to why this is important,” said Agbo, adding that the center plans to hold community forums in early summer and engage in door-to-door outreach closer to elections.

Oakland Rising, an umbrella organization for four group’s including the Ella Baker Center, also has lined up several outreach efforts targeting low-income, multi-ethnic voters mainly in East and West Oakland.

On May 15, Oakland Rising launched a campaign that included information on ranked-choice voting, aimed at reaching 7,000 voters over three weeks. From late July to late September, community meetings and presentations are slated. The fall will see its biggest campaign to date – door-to-door knocking and phone banking to reach 10,000 registered voters or more.

“We believe the most effective outreach is when people from the communities we’re working with are talking to people in those communities,” Oakland Rising Field Director Jessamyn Sabbag said.

In addition to informational meetings, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, another organization associated with Oakland Rising, will send about 5,000 monolingual voter guides in June mostly to the low-income Asian communities in District 2.

“When we send out our voter guide, we usually translate it into their language so they are able to understand the elections and the (ranked-choice voting system),” said Wayne Leung, a community organizer for the network.

These face-to-face voter education tactics are not new in the Bay Area.

While Oakland adopted ranked-choice voting when Measure O passed by 69 percent in November 2006, San Francisco passed the ballot measure in 2002 and used the new system for the first time in its 2004 Board of Supervisors race.

After successfully leading outreach to communities that are not high income in San Francisco, the New American Foundation is working with organizations in Oakland to do the same, said Steven Hill, director of the foundation’s political reform program.

The county doesn’t “have the outreach team to reach out to various communities so I think it’s important to get information to community organizations that can do outreach to their own communities,” he said. “That’s what we did in San Francisco and it’s effective.”

A Request For Proposals process took place in San Francisco, in which several organizations were awarded funds to reach out to groups such as minorities, low-income populations, the disabled and young adults, Hill said. The same has applied for Oakland.

An original proposal introduced on March 16 by Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview-Fruitvale) and Rebecca Kaplan (At-Large) called for using $255,000 previously earmarked for public campaign financing to teach residents how to use ranked-choice voting.

In the second tie-breaking vote of his tenure, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums voted on April 20 in favor of a substitute motion by Councilwoman Jean Quan (Montclair-Laurel) that amended the ordinance. Instead, $100,000 of the campaign contribution funds from races in Districts 2, 4 and 6 would be allocated to voter education.

On May 4, the ordinance passed the second reading and the city administrator was tasked with issuing an expedited RFP within 30 days for organizations looking to apply for funds. An amendment from District 3 Councilwoman Nancy Nadel established that organizations “cannot also do candidate or initiative promotion when they go door to door.”

City staff are “still in the process of working the details out” and issued the request for proposal on May 28, according to Karen Boyd, assistant to the city administrator. Outreach efforts are expected to begin in August.

For some groups, receiving funds will be the deciding factor on the scale of their education efforts. Summer outreach plans are in the works for Causa Justa :: Just Cause, which serves primarily black and Latino residents in East and West Oakland. But the demographics and number of people it can reach depend on whether it can get resources to pay for canvassers, said the organization’s finance director Adam Gold.

“We only have large teams and paid people doing more intensive outreach when we get funding,” Gold said.

For the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, receiving funds would mean increasing the number of voter guides sent out and this would “make a much bigger impact,” Leung said.

Quan confirmed that applying for the Request For Proposal “is going to be a competitive process.”

But Oakland Rising’s Sabbag said she does not see the process as something that should divide groups ultimately seeking to accomplish the same goal – increasing the number of voters come November.

“I think the bottom line is the more the merrier on the topic,” she said.

Not all organizations in Oakland are looking to capitalize on the available funds. The League of Women Voters, which is supported primarily through donations, will produce its own voter guide in English, Spanish and Chinese and hold forums with volunteer speakers.

“We don’t have the number of people that it would take to do door-to-door outreach,” said Helen Hutchinson, a member and former president of the league.

The Ella Baker Center has never applied for government funding and does not plan because it “does not allow organizations to be more innovative with how they use the funds,” Agbo said.

Other groups will do voter education through organizations with which they are associated. Oakland Community Organization will do its outreach to educate low-income people of color through about 45 congregations and schools.

Since ranked-choice voting is a new system, Paul Rose, spokesman for the mayor, advocated for outreach to populations of all types within the city.

“Of course there’s going to be an emphasis on those districts (with monolingual or low-income residents),” he said. “But we have to educate the entire city so as this process moves on year by year we can ensure that as many people in Oakland are educated and understand the process as much as possible.”