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Instant runoff voting and the community colleges

city clerkcommunity collegeselectionsgeorgia mercerinstant runoff votingIRVMarch 3 electionmeasure broy burnssolar power

March 3 election, elections, IRV, instant runoff voting, community colleges, roy burns, georgia mercer, city clerk, measure b, solar power 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.

Photo: Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times


Comments () | Archives (5)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Terry Bouricius

IRV is an important pro-democracy reform. My own city of Burlington, VT started using IRV in our mayoral elections in 2006. We had five candidates with no concerns about "spoilers." Exit polls showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred IRV to the former election method. And voters had no difficulty with the ranked-choice ballot. Fully 99.9% of the votes cast in the mayor's race were valid. The polls closed at 7 pm and by 8:37 pm election night the IRV tally had been completed (since no candidate received a majority of first choices), and the winner was announced. IRV worked great. I hope more jurisdictions adopt it.


Keep in mind that running for office isn't free either -- having to run a whole second election means having to raise a whole second campaign warchest. One-on-one races make campaign spending all the more effective too because negaitive attacks are more effective.

Little surprise that campaign consultants are often the keenest defenders of keeping runoffs!


Let's hope the City Council stops dragging its feet and gets this on the ballot sometime soon. IRV is used in elections in over a dozen places nationwide. We know it works. The last thing we need is another "working group."


Once adopted, IRV will save LA taxpayers $8-9 million each election cycle. Voters need a break from too many elections. By the time the May runoff comes, there will have been five elections in a little over a year. It's hardly a surprise that turnout is expected to be no higher than 12% in March. One election, particularly if it's in November of odd years, will save tax dollars and decrease voter fatigue.

Chris Rowe

The most important aspect of this election is that very few people know that there is one. There are no real Mayoral debates - no cameras and media coverage of the debates.
Then there is the Absentee Ballot issue. As of Tuesday of this week, I could find no one that had received the 64 page Voter Infomation Packet.
Yet I received my Permanant Absentee Ballot over a week ago. I know more than one person who has already voted absentee.
Many people think that Measure B is about Solar Energy and Green Jobs. They only see one paragraph in the Absentee Ballot package that describes Measure B.
So every body is for Solar and every body wants jobs.
We will have an LADWP 5 part Solar Plan even without Measure B. Measure B only gives the jobs to the IBEW.
It allows changes in the City Charter that will affect future votes by the City Council.
If the City Council wants to change the rules on how to pass a vote through, it should do it in a transparent measure - take that to the people.
Do not hide your Charter Changes in a " Green Energy" bill.



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