Instant runoffs would reduce election costs

Gautam Dutta and Ted W. Lieu // Published June 8, 2009 in Torrance Daily Breeze

California faces a crater-size, $24 billion deficit - and we're about to throw away millions more on three elections we don't need. But here's the good news: If we adopt Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, for special elections, we can save that amount and more.

With IRV, taxpayers could save nearly $2 million July 14 (fittingly, Bastille Day).

On May 19, barely 18 percent of voters participated in a special election to replace Hilda Solis, who gave up her 32nd Congressional District seat to become labor secretary. Eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian ran in this contentious race.

Although she finished first, Judy Chu did not win outright because she fell short of a majority (50 percent plus one). The race now goes to a July 14 runoff election - but it won't be between the top two finishers, who were both Democrats. Instead, the top Democrat (Chu) will square off against the top Republican (who placed fourth with 10 percent of the vote) and the top Libertarian (who barely mustered 1 percent).

Three things are certain in this race. First, Chu is the odds-on favorite in this overwhelmingly Democratic district. (Last year, 68 percent of its voters chose Barack Obama for president.) Second, taxpayers face a steep tab for this election. According to the Los Angeles County Clerk/Registrar Recorder, it will cost taxpayers over $1.5 million.

Finally, a minuscule number of fatigued voters (perhaps as low as 7 percent)
will show up for the July 14 runoff. While the voters stay home, the taxpayers' tab goes up: The cost of administering the runoff will approach a staggering $100 per voter.

Fortunately, there's a better way to conduct special elections to fill vacancies. Using IRV would allow us to elect majority winners using one election, instead of two.

Under IRV, voters get to rank their choices (1, 2, 3). If your first choice cannot win, your vote automatically goes to your second (i.e., runoff) choice. It's like conducting a runoff election, but in a single election.

The recent special runoff was no isolated case. In fact, a whopping seven of California's past 11 special elections for federal or state office have gone on to runoffs. In all of those elections, the top candidate from the majority party has always won the runoff.

These "special" elections have exacted a heavy fiscal toll. In the past two years, $9.3million has been spent in Southern California alone on special elections. Of that amount, more than $3.6 million was spent on special runoff elections (including the upcoming July 14 Congressional runoff).

What's more, this cascade of vacancy elections will continue unabated. By year's end, voters in Ladera Heights will have been asked to vote a total of five times! In the fall, we'll have races to replace Assemblyman Curren Price (now state senator-elect) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Obama's nominee for undersecretary of state). The tab to us taxpayers? More than $5 million.

IRV has already been adopted by San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Memphis and Santa Fe. In addition, Arkansas, Illinois and Louisiana currently use IRV for overseas voters.

Recently, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors held its first hearing on IRV. What's more, the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Pasadena are seriously considering IRV.

A number of leaders and civic groups have endorsed IRV, including Obama, Sen. John McCain, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Los Angeles City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, California Common Cause, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Asian American Action Fund and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

As part of the governor's proposed budget solutions after the May 19 statewide budget election, he should include using IRV, as it would save critical funds and chip away at our dire $24billion shortfall.

Let's do away with our multimillion-dollar election madness. Let's adopt IRV - and fill vacancies by electing majority winners in a single special election.

Gautam Dutta is deputy director for New America Foundation's Political Reform Program. Ted W. Lieu, D-Torrance, represents California's 53rd Assembly District.