Instant runoff voting and the community colleges

Robert Greene // Published February 11, 2009 in Los Angeles Times

L.A. Times writer Robert Greene talks about IRV as a possible solution to costly runoffs in L.A.

What are the costliest elections in Los Angeles? Sure, they're the races for mayor, city attorney and controller, if you consider the amount of money raised and spent. But looked at another way, the hands-down winner is the set of obscure battles for seats on the L.A. Community College District Board of Trustees.

That's not because incumbents haven't been cruising to reelection -- they have been, with one recent and notable exception. Two years ago, all four trustees on the ballot were reelected.

But the exception and the expense came in the case of trustee Georgia Mercer, who bested three challengers but fell short of the 50%-plus-one she needed to take the race in March. That meant the city and the district had to conduct a costly May runoff between Mercer and second-place finisher Roy Burns –- and it was the only runoff in town. Most voters had nothing else on their ballots, and few people bothered to come out just for that one race. Only 4.7% of eligible voters showed up, according to the New America Foundation's Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) project. The cost of holding the election worked out to about $40 per vote.

That May 2007 election has become one of the primary talking points for the IRV folks, who want to eliminate runoffs –- or rather, make them occur instantaneously under a system in which voters pick not just the candidate they want, but their second and third choices as well. Votes would be re-tabulated to take account of those back-up choices until one candidate had more than 50%. (See a YouTube video of a City Hall conference on IRV last year)

The issue may well come up again in a few weeks.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has nine challengers but just may get his 50% despite them. Runoffs are possible in the controller and city attorney races, but not inevitable. I'm betting on a runoff in the Fifth Council District race. But citywide, there's a chance that the only runoffs will be once again in the sleepiest, who-cares-iest races on the ballot: The Community College District Board of Trustees, in which one incumbent faces four challengers and another faces five (two are opposed by single challengers).

The IRV people asked the City Council to put an instant runoff reform on the March 3 ballot, but the council refused and instead asked the City Clerk's office to convene a working group to discuss various issues. The group met last week, for the second time; the next “working group” session is set for Feb. 19. Still, it's not clear when, or if, voters will get to weigh in.

I share the IRV folks' irritation at the council for dragging its feet. Council members declared last fall that there was no sense rushing to put IRV on the ballot before there was plenty of discussion and fact-gathering. This was at about the same time they put Measure B, the solar initiative, on the ballot, explaining that all the research and unanswered questions could be addressed by election day.

One note of caution regarding IRV, which is supported by Mercer and at least four other members of the Community College Board of Trustees. If incumbents believe they are going to win anyway, of course they’d want IRV -- to avoid the cost and headaches of a pointless runoff campaign. But is it clear they would win anyway? In the May 15, 2007 election night count, Burns appeared to be the victor, scoring 50.4% of the vote. More than half of the few people who came out to vote came specifically to vote for him. Burns told The Times he does not believe he would have done as well with IRV.

As it turned out, Mercer eked out a win in the final tally.

Burns is running again for the Community College Board this year, but he won’t be in a runoff, because he’s the sole challenger to incumbent Kelly Candaele. That race will be over, one way or another, March 3. But runoffs –- expensive ones -- are highly possible in the races for the other seats.