Disenfranchised Again in California
Most of the country was captivated on Tuesday night, June 3, by the apparent nomination for the first time of someone other than a European-American man as a major party presidential candidate. Here in Los Angeles, however, we had a very consequential and quite captivating election of our own taking place on the very same night.
Unfortunately, due to the profound structural flaws in the way America's antiquated electoral system operates, it ended in a fizzle.
The race was for one of the five seats on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Since more than 10 million souls reside now in Los Angeles County, that means that each supervisor represents some two million constituents. That is more than twice as large as the size of the average congressional district in the United States. The county supervisors, largely under the radar screen of the public in this age of extreme civic disengagement, grapple every day with crucial if unsexy issues. Like law enforcement. Prisons. Fair elections. Homelessness. Trying to build and expand a workable transit system -- to ease, if only a bit, LA's perpetually gridlocked traffic (but having little success in an era when so many American taxpayer dollars end up in the black budgets of the Pentagon or the deep pockets of defense contractors). And, perhaps most crucially, the LA County board of supervisors tries bravely to improve a woefully insufficient local public health system, in an effort to provide a modicum of care to the millions who cannot successfully navigate America's hyper-profit health care obstacle course.
In addition, because of the overwhelming power of incumbency in American electoral politics today, Tuesday's race was the first real contest for a single county supervisorial seat offered to Angelenos since 1992.
No less than nine candidates had filed to run. Nevertheless, most local pundits agreed that it was a two-man race, between State Senator and former LA City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Los Angeles City Councilman and former LA police chief Bernard Parks.
Almost all of my politically savvy friends held strong opinions about the race. Many put in long volunteer hours of blood, tears, toil, and sweat on behalf of one or the other of the candidates. Several ponied up cash donations out of their finite financial reservoirs as well. My wife and I received two or three flyers in our mailbox, every single day, for the last 2 or 3 weeks before the election.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas even showed up knocking on my door on Election Day, two hours before the polls closed, working assiduously to get out every last vote... and caught me watering the garden. I had met him several times before, but never before wearing rainbow-colored flip-flops, Bermuda shorts, and a ridiculous floppy hat. Two million constituents -- what are the chances?
At least I was able to tell him that I had already voted.
Several hours later, on election night, in very dramatic fashion, Senator Ridley-Thomas pulled out a solid, hard-fought, five-point victory over Councilman Parks, 45% to 40%.
He gets to run against Mr. Parks in November, all over again.
Because this was a non-partisan race, not a party primary -- and the winner failed to secure more than 50% of the vote. Therefore, under LA County rules, the top two candidates have to face off again, in a runoff election this fall.
And the only people less enthused than all my politically active friends about going through the same thing all over again are probably Mr. Ridley-Thomas and Mr. Parks themselves.
The democracy fatigue that so many of us are experiencing this week in Los Angeles could have been remedied with one easy modification to the electoral system -- instant runoff voting.
The seven lesser-known long shot candidates all undoubtedly possessed imaginative platforms and fine reasons for running. (I did that once myself -- put forth a dazzlingly imaginative platform and ran for a rare open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with no less than a dozen other long shots, against a sitting Los Angeles city councilman, a sitting state senator, and the former state senator who won the seat, Diane Watson.) The 15% of voters who chose one of the seven long shots in this race all presumably had fine reasons for doing so.
However, those 15% all, presumably, also had second choices -- probably, at least if their mailboxes were as full as mine, Senator Ridley-Thomas or Councilman Parks. I am no expert on electoral reform, but I think the way instant runoff works is pretty simple. After pulling the curtain behind oneself in the booth, a voter does not just pick one candidate, but actually gets to ranks them in order of preference.
On election night, then, the first choices are all tallied. Just like they were in this race.
But then, with instant runoff, the last place candidate is thrown out, and all the voters who chose that candidate have their second choice vote tallied instead. Then the places are tallied again, then the same thing happens with the new last place candidate again, then the process keeps going... until some candidate secures a vote total that exceeds 50%.
The winner then can get busy planning to govern, rather than planning to run yet another campaign.
The county (or city or state or whatever) can save the cost of running the same election all over again -- and devote those finite resources instead to real constituent services and governance.
The voters get to express their real preferences without having to worry that they are "throwing away their vote." This could allow insurgent political newcomers perhaps not to win, but to gauge a true level of support for innovative ideas. All the voters who endorse those ideas could vote for those candidates first -- and then know that their second choice vote would ultimately count in choosing the ultimate winner.
And, perhaps not least important, all of us can then get busy with the rest of our lives.
Several American cities have already adopted instant runoff voting, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Santa Fe. Ireland has elected its president using the method for 70 years. As it happens, even before the Ridley-Thomas vs. Parks debacle, the Los Angeles City Council began to consider placing a proposal to institute instant runoff voting on the November 2008 ballot. The idea is being pushed right now, both in Los Angeles and nationwide, by groups such as the New America Foundation, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the National Latino Congress, the LA Chamber of Commerce, fairvote.org, and lavotefire.org.
Oh, there is one more problem caused by the absence of the simple little democratic innovation of instant runoff voting.
This November, because of America's anachronistic and obsolete Electoral College, all my political savvy friends and I are going to have to choose between participating intensely in this crucially important race for Los Angeles County Supervisor, or participating instead in the crucially important race for president of the United States.
Because California is not a "swing state." California will almost certainly end up as a blue state in November 2008, as it has been since 1992. So working to get out the vote for a presidential candidate here -- either candidate -- will make as little sense as it would in the reliably red state of Texas.
That is why so many of my politically active friends, in the weeks before the November 2004 election, either called voters in places like Nevada or New Mexico or Ohio, or actually made road trips to such swing states, to walk swinger precincts and to knock on swinger doors.
But in November 2008, every call I make to a swing state voter is one less call I can make to a Los Angeles County voter. The anti-gay marriage initiative that just qualified for the California ballot, too, is one on which most of my political compadres will want to work -- and again, we will be forced to choose between working on one or the other. For those of us who do not live in swing states, the only way we can participate in the presidential election in a meaningful way is to reduce our participation in the many local elections that most directly affect the communities where we live.
A problem that could be remedied by the simple little democratic innovation of selecting our presidents by nationwide popular vote. Which would allow me instead, in November 2008, to focus exclusively on calling Los Angeles County voters and knocking on Los Angeles County doors. And then to take my best shot at persuading those voters about my choice for the next Los Angeles County supervisor, and about my straight opinion on the gay marriage initiative, and about my choice for the next president of the United States.
You know, the United States. The oldest, and greatest, and most representative, and most sophisticated democracy in the world.
At least that is what I was taught in school.