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Los Angeles Times


"A Remedy for Long-Empty Council Seats"

William Pietz
June 1, 2001 

Last 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.

Yet the 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.

Until 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.

From 1969 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 days.

In 1975, 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 runoffs.

The median vacancy period today is about 190 days--a heavy price to pay for the enhanced legitimacy of majority elections.

Los 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 vote.

Instant 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 statewide.

Yet Los Angeles has done nothing.

The City 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.

(William Pietz, a Resident of Silver Lake in the Vacant 13th Council District, Is Co-chair of the California Instant Runoff Voting Coalition.)

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