A smarter way to vote

// Published July 10, 2008 in Press Telegram, Long Beach, CA
Long Beach council wisely is taking a look at instant-runoff system.

Looking forward to the fourth election in less than a year? Surely not, unless your name's on the ballot.

Long Beach City Clerk Larry Herrera has a solution to excess elections that could save money, reduce voter fatigue, improve turnout and make it possible to vote our consciences every time.

That last point is the most appealing. Remember the time you refrained from voting for Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, a Green candidate or Libertarian because it would have been a "wasted" vote? That's the real waste.

Marginal candidates don't have much of a chance under the present system, because there is an implicit risk. If you "waste" your vote on a fringe candidate, you could unintentionally help your least favorite candidate win. There is a better way.

It's instant runoff. In this system, adopted by San Francisco, Oakland and San Leandro, voters select their first, second and third choices. If no candidate gets a majority in the first round, the process continues until there is a winner.

In partisan races, this eliminates the possibility of a third party candidate "spoiling" matters by taking enough votes from one candidate to cause a less favored one to win. In rare instances, it can result in the election of a minor-party candidate.

City Clerk Herrera and Gautam Dutta of the New America Foundation gave members of the City Council's Elections Oversight
Committee a presentation this week on the advantages of instant runoff. Council members asked a few logical questions about recent investments in equipment and the cost of informing voters, then asked Herrera to return later with more specifics about costs.

The idea is worth pursuing. Costs are an issue, but savings are greater, and voter education is a task, although it has been manageable in cities that have implemented it. Exit polls in San Francisco by Pacific Research Institute showed 87 percent of voters understood the new system fairly well or very well, and 61 percent liked it better than the old one.

San Francisco spent $750,000 educating voters on the change, but Long Beach could do it for much less, and recoup most of the expenses in savings. Even if it did cost more rather than less, the benefits are clear.

Among the few opponents to instant runoffs are staff people who conduct elections and don't like change.

Long Beach is fortunate to have a city clerk open to finding ways to make the system fairer and more efficient. Council members would be wise to listen to him.