The Groundhog Day Election in Los Angeles

Gautam Dutta, Esq. // Published June 23, 2008 in California Progress Report
After a fiercely fought primary election, no winner emerged in last week's election in the LA County Supervisor race between City Councilmember Bernard Parks and State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas. With barely one-sixth of all voters participating, millions of dollars spent, and a race that turned increasingly negative, neither Ridley-Thomas nor Parks could muster a majority (50 percent plus one) in the nine-candidate field. As a result, both candidates must now duke it out for another five months until the November general election -- leaving voters in the crossfire of more mudslinging and personal attacks.

According to some political consultants and politicians, runoff elections are good for democracy. In theory, they give voters a “second look” to size up the top two finalists. But in all honesty, how much more will voters learn about Councilmember Parks and State Senator Ridley-Thomas that we don’t already know? What will we learn from another five months of attack mailers and sound bites?

One things we will definitely learn is how low mudslinging campaigning can go. To date, the two million residents of the sprawling 2nd District -- which stretches from Venice to Koreatown to South Los Angeles to the City of Carson -- have been subjected to increasingly vitriolic charges and countercharges. And that’s not counting the additional millions of dollars spent on this race by so-called independent expenditure committees.

This is not the first time that Los Angeles voters have had to endure nasty, negative and expensive runoff elections. Previously we saw it in the mayoral races in 2001 and 2005, in some city council districts, as well as a community college district runoff in 2007. In each race, voters were hammered with attack ads telling us what’s wrong with the future winners -- undermining our faith in our leaders.

Adding insult to injury, LA taxpayers shell out millions of dollars to pay for the administering of these runoff elections. The May 2007 runoff cost $5 million for an election where only 6 percent of voters participated, a 40 percent dropoff from the March primary. Some precincts had no voters -- yet taxpayers paid $40 per voter for this wasteful election.

Fortunately, there is a better way to elect our local leaders – it is called instant runoff voting (IRV). It works much like our current runoff system, but it elects the majority winner in a single election, thereby savings millions in taxes. It also has the potential to boost voter turnout, and reduce the negative campaigning. Here’s how it works.

With the current method, voters who did not support Parks or Ridley-Thomas in June will pick their second choice this November. With IRV, voters indicate their second choice at the same time as their first choice by ranking up to three candidates, 1-2-3.

If any candidate wins a majority of first rankings, the election is over (just like now). But if no candidate garners a majority of first rankings, the instant runoff begins. If your first choice cannot win, your vote will go immediately to your second choice. In this way, the runoff rankings are used to determine the majority winner. It’s like the current runoff system, but you get it over in one election.

With IRV, voters, candidates and organizations can focus on a single election. According to the Los Angeles City Clerk, IRV will save taxpayers $8 to $9 million each election that a citywide runoff is not held.

Moreover, by reducing the number of elections, IRV will reduce voter fatigue and help boost voter turnout. It also has the potential to reduce negative campaigning. Other places using IRV have found that a winning candidate may need to receive second rankings from the supporters of his or her competitors. As a result, candidates have a greater incentive to find common ground and forge coalitions instead of attacking each other.

IRV has already been adopted by a growing number of cities, including Oakland, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Cary, North Carolina and San Francisco. In San Francisco, IRV has been used in four elections since 2004. One study found that IRV boosted citywide voter turnout by 168 percent, and by 300 percent in the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Another study found that 87 percent of San Francisco voters understood IRV, a measure that cut across all racial lines.

IRV already has considerable support in Los Angeles, and has been endorsed by a broad coalition that includes the League of Women Voters, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), voting-rights groups, some neighborhood councils, and noteworthy leaders like former Mayor Richard Riordan, labor leader Dolores Huerta and California State Controller John Chiang.

Voters must approve a charter amendment to adopt IRV for local runoff elections. If the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Villaraigosa act to put IRV on the November ballot, voters will finally have the chance to get rid of wasteful, low turnout runoffs for all Los Angeles city, school board, and community college elections. But time is running short. For this to happen, the City Council's Rules Committee (chaired by Council President Eric Garcetti) must pass an IRV bill by this Wednesday (June 25) -- and the full Council must approve it by July 2.

Like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day”, voters desperately need relief from having to sit through endless reruns of the same election. It’s time to kickstart our democracy – end voter fatigue, save millions of taxpayer dollars, reduce mudslinging campaigns -- by adopting IRV.

Gautam Dutta, Esq. is Deputy Director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation (