Instant runoffs might be fix for voter fatigue

By Steve Hymon
Published June 11th 2007 in The Los Angeles Times

Let's begin by agreeing that the Los Angeles City Council's Rules and Elections Committee is not exactly Comedy Central.

That's not saying committee Chairman Eric Garcetti isn't a host with a sense of humor. He is. But hey, it's Rules and Elections. Short of passing out whoopee cushions and nachos, you can only do so much.

FOR THE RECORD: Villaraigosa's influence: A graphic that ran with the Local Government Q&A column in Monday's California section about Mayor Villaraigosa's possible influence on Latino voters in next year's presidential election omitted the number of electoral votes in some of the Western states shown on the map. The complete list is: Arizona, 10; California, 55; Colorado, 9; Idaho, 4; Montana, 3; Nevada, 5; New Mexico, 5; Oregon, 7; Utah, 5; Washington, 11; Wyoming, 3.

But this Wednesday's meeting may be different because the committee is going to discuss instant runoff voting. If you're tired of the endless electioneering in the city, this is a good thing.

And the problem?

As attentive readers may recall, this column believes that perpetually low turnout in city elections is due, in part, to the city's insistence on holding elections in March of odd-numbered years. Any wonder that turnout in this year's election was just 11% and even lower during the May runoffs?

That means city elections follow directly on the heels of far sexier general elections in November of even-numbered years. The result: Election season feels like hockey season. It never ends.

Look at the next couple of years. Voters will have the presidential primary in February, the state primaries in June and the general election in November to decide the presidency.

Then, four months later in Los Angeles, in March 2009, eight council seats and the citywide offices of controller, city attorney and mayor will be up for grabs — with possible runoffs to follow in some of those races.

That's five elections in 15 months. Uncle!

Would instant runoff be easier on voters?

Some experts say it would. It's already being used in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Instead of picking one candidate, voters would be asked to rank three by order of preference. Those rankings, in turn, would determine the winner.

Let's look at a hypothetical council election involving three candidates: Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and Pigpen.

After the votes are tallied, Lucy received 45%, owing to her pledge to institute a Great Pumpkin eradication program. Pigpen somehow manages 40% and Charlie Brown — always the loser — gets 15%.

Because no candidate received a majority, the election would enter an instant runoff phase. The first step would be to eliminate the last-place finisher and redistribute those votes according to whom voters picked second.

In other words, if Charlie Brown was your first choice and Lucy your second, then Lucy would get your vote. If Lucy gets enough of those second-place votes to put her over the 50% mark, she wins.

The pros and cons of instant runoff:

The New America Foundation, which is pushing the proposal in cities across the country, says Los Angeles could save money with instant runoffs, having spent $30.9 million to administer separate runoff elections since 1993.

That's not to mention all the fundraising and campaign promises — not all well thought out — that accompany runoffs.

More important, the foundation says that candidates vying to be someone's second or third choice would stick to the issues more closely — and sometimes even build coalitions around issues.

"Local elections are some of the most important in terms of having an impact on your daily life," said Lynne Serpe, deputy director of the foundation's political reform program. "I think that elections have become so negative and nasty that people tune out and turn off."

There is, of course, a con side. Runoffs can be logistically difficult, and eliminating the May general election could also mean denying voters a chance to get to better know the two finalists. Also, it could mean that candidates could win even without a majority vote.

The Rules and Elections panel is only going to discuss the idea. But Councilman Jose Huizar — who isn't on the committee — very much wants to see the issue move forward for a council vote.

Huizar predicts his colleagues will go for the idea "if we can make the case that we can save a whole lot of money and it will cut down on the madness and negative campaigning."

And, Huizar added, it would also help if he can show that instant runoff voting won't affect his colleagues' futures.

Stay tuned.

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