Los Angeles Times
Remedy for Long-Empty Council Seats"
June 1, 2001
March, Los Angeles enjoyed a rare victory in federal court. A
lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city
for failing to fill a vacant City Council seat was thrown out by the
judge. With so much of our municipal system--from public
transportation to the Los Angeles Police Department--already under
federal consent decrees, this was cause for celebration. At least
our electoral system dodged the judicial bullet. For now.
problem that prompted the lawsuit remains. With two vacancies on the
City Council--in the 4th and 13th districts--half a million
Angelenos lack representation. And on Wednesday, 2nd District
Councilman Joel Wachs announced that he would resign Oct. 1 to head
an arts foundation. Those of us in the 13th District are going on
half a year without representation. We can only watch as details of
the city budget are decided and as projects in other districts are
advanced. The election Tuesday will finally fill the opening. The
4th District constituents must wait until a special election in
September. So now Wachs' 2nd District constituents will be in limbo
for some time while arrangements to fill his spot are made. But we
have had to watch a short-handed council struggle day to day just to
muster a quorum. Attempts to pass measures requiring 12 votes have
become adventures in councilmanic gamesmanship.
In an era
of term limits, the vacancy problem is likely to get worse. It's
time for a fresh look at council vacancies. There are four ways to
fill vacant elective offices: appointments; plurality elections;
majority elections with separate runoffs; and majority elections
with instant runoffs. Los Angeles has tried the first three.
1963, we used appointments. Timeliness was the overriding concern.
The City Charter required that vacant council seats be filled
"without delay." But too often a vacancy meant an eruption of
divisive politics. Fed up, Los Angeles voters amended the charter to
fill vacancies by special election.
to 1975, Los Angeles tried the second option, plurality elections,
in which the winning candidate needs only one more vote than any of
the others to win. Plurality elections balance the need to restore
representation promptly with the need to do it democratically. While
appointments (barring infighting) filled vacant council seats in
under 30 days, plurality elections achieved this in about 80
plurality elections were abolished in favor of majority balloting.
Under this option, if no candidate wins a majority, a separate
runoff among the two top vote-getters is held. This affirms the
principle of majority rule. It also causes prolonged vacancies.
Since 1975 most special elections have required separate
vacancy period today is about 190 days--a heavy price to pay for the
enhanced legitimacy of majority elections.
Angeles should consider the fourth alternative: instant runoffs. In
such elections, voters rank candidates in order of their preference:
first choice, second and so on. Most of us do this in our heads
anyway. The only difference is that with this option we don't have
to wait months to cast our vote. For voters whose first choice is
eliminated, their second choice is then counted, just as it's done
in separate runoffs. If there is still no winner, the candidate
receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and another runoff is held.
This is done until one candidate receives more than 50% of the
runoffs eliminate the cost and delay of separate runoffs while
upholding majority rule. Other cities have embraced the option,
including Oakland and San Leandro. And a measure backing the option
has been introduced in San Francisco. Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg
(D-Sherman Oaks) has also introduced a bill to do the same
Angeles has done nothing.
Council should authorize a study of the option that would answer
important questions. For example: What are the cost savings of not
holding separate runoffs? How much could the vacancy period be
reduced? What experience have others had with instant runoffs? Does
the touch-screen voting equipment L.A. is phasing in make instant
runoffs feasible? Why not try our only remaining option? All the
others have failed.
Pietz, a Resident of Silver Lake in the Vacant 13th Council
District, Is Co-chair of the California Instant Runoff Voting