No way to run an election

By Steven Hill and Lynne Serpe
Published May 17th 2007 in L.A. Times
THE SOUND OF hissing air leaking out of Los Angeles democracy is unmistakable. A check-in at one precinct by 2 p.m. on election day revealed that only two voters out of the 1,073 registered in that precinct had turned out to vote. By the close of the polls, it was up to four. This makes the 10% overall turnout in the March 6 elections — already the lowest in decades — look like a democratic flood.

Each of the 122,436 ballots cast Tuesday, out of nearly 2 million registered voters, cost taxpayers more than $40 — an expensive ticket to a no-show election. We spent $5 million for 6% voter turnout (and that's not counting the more than $4-million combined campaign war chests in the Jon Lauritzen/Tamar Galatzan race).

Why was turnout so low? In the March primary, the sheer number of incumbents running unopposed provided a partial answer. People are unlikely to interrupt their busy workday to vote when the result is a foregone conclusion. Adding insult to injury, we then asked citizens this week to vote a second time for one L.A. Community College District office and two district seats for the L.A. Unified School District — not exactly high-profile races. The city, along with the school district and the community college district, allocated a whopping $14 million to administer a March primary and a May runoff election — yet hardly anyone bothered to vote.

Increasingly, the March-May election cycle is looking like a flat tire in need of repair. Holding two elections is expensive and inconvenient, and voters are getting burned out. To address the problem, we could just eliminate the May runoff and allow the highest vote-getter in March to win. But that could result in officeholders elected with far less than a 50% majority. In the last mayoral election, Antonio Villaraigosa would have been elected with barely a third of the vote. That's undemocratic.

A much better solution is to use instant runoff voting, an electoral method that elects a majority winner in a single election.

Here's how it works: Voters rank the candidates in their order of preference instead of just picking one candidate. If a candidate wins a majority of first rankings, the election is over, just like now. But if no candidate wins a majority of first rankings, voters' other rankings are used to determine the winner instantly. The candidate with the fewest first rankings is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first can now have their second choice counted. All ballots are recounted in the "instant runoff," and the process of dropping the last-place candidate continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes.

With instant runoff voting, voters and candidates could focus on a single election, and millions of tax dollars would be saved that currently are wasted on a second election in which few bother to participate.

San Francisco has used instant runoff voting for three successful elections. Exit polls show that voters like the system and find it easy to use. In some races, it has led to a decrease in negative campaigning because candidates realize that they may need second or third rankings from supporters of rival candidates to win. Instead of using nasty attack ads, some candidates are building coalitions and running more issue-based campaigns.

Because this method of voting would save millions of tax dollars, part of that money could be used for an expansion of Los Angeles' public financing system, which might produce more candidates and more competition — which could induce higher voter turnout.

Los Angeles also could change to an all vote-by-mail system. Oregon votes this way, as does Burbank, and it has led to higher turnout in non-November elections. It also saves tax dollars by avoiding the high costs of setting up polling stations and hiring election workers.

Los Angeles doesn't have to put up with expensive, low-turnout elections. Instant runoff voting, full public financing and vote-by-mail may be the right combination to put some wind back into the sails of Los Angeles democracy.