'Instant Runoff' Proposal Would Do Away With Some Runoff Elections in LA

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The idea of "instant runoff" voting appears to be gaining steam in Los Angeles. The L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and the League of Women Voters want change: a proposal would eliminate runoff elections in non-partisan races in several categories. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: In their case for instant runoff voting, advocates point to last year's runoff election between two candidates for the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.

Gautam Dutta: Only six percent showed up to vote. In fact, in some precincts, nobody showed up to vote. That election cost five million dollars, and that's a cost of $40 per voter.

Stoltze: Gautam Dutta is with the New America Foundation. The nonprofit public policy institute is leading a campaign to introduce instant runoff voting for Los Angeles City Council, school board, and community college board of trustees seats.

Under its proposal, voters would rank their favorite candidates. If nobody won a majority of first choice votes, the least popular candidate would be eliminated, and his or her supporters' second choice votes would be counted. The process would continue until one candidate won a majority of voters' support. The idea is to eliminate the need for a runoff election months later.

State Controller John Chiang supports the idea. He told a recent panel that it would encourage more people to vote because they wouldn't be so burned out on elections.

John Chiang: I think part of the fatigue with the American electoral system is with the runoffs, with the endless electoral cycles where people do not get time to govern, and people don't get time to participate.

Stoltze: Supporters of instant runoff voting say it would save money because governments wouldn't have to run as many elections. L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben believes it would save business money too.

Gary Toebben: I can assure you that the business community gets fatigue around elections, because people are always asking for money. And when you have two elections, they ask twice.

Stoltze: Mona Field, who teaches political science at Glendale Community College, suggested other benefits to instant runoff voting. She predicted that candidates would treat their opponents with more respect.

Mona Field: You simply can't trash other people if you want their voters to consider you as second best.

Stoltze: Field, a member of the L.A. Community College board, also said voters would be more inclined to mark as their first choice the candidate they really like.

Field: I can make my first choice someone who's not a frontrunner, someone I think is fantastic and the best candidate who probably has no chance. But if I make him number one and then I say OK, but I want my number two to be someone with a chance of winning who isn't quite my favorite, then that's my number two. So in effect, it also gives people a chance to vote for their true choice in a way that we often don't now.

Stoltze: Many elected officials are still studying instant runoff voting. L.A. City Councilman Greig Smith has made up his mind that it's untested and full of potential for mischief. He argues that voters get a better feel for candidates in runoff elections. Eliminating runoffs, Smith warned, would allow special interests to exercise more influence over campaigns.

A few other cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Santa Fe, have adopted instant runoff voting. Ireland has elected its president using the method for 70 years. Gotham Dutta of the New America Foundation said San Francisco's seen an increase in voter participation.

Dutta: Our biggest opponent, frankly, is inertia. You know, in politics, sometimes we say that, "Oh, if it's been done before a certain way, it must be sacred, it must be right, there must be something to it, so we shouldn't change it."

Stoltze: Dutta said his organization hopes to persuade the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to place instant runoff voting on the ballot in November. The council would need to decide on that by July 2nd.