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Let's start instant runoffs and cut our election costs

José Huizar // Published March 10, 2009 in Los Angeles Daily News

Last Tuesday's city election was the fourth election that Angelenos have been asked to participate in over a period of a little more than a year, and there is a runoff election scheduled for May 19.

While turnout reached record numbers during last fall's presidential election, Tuesday's primary was similar to recent local elections, with just over 15 percent of eligible voters taking part.

May's runoff election has just a few electoral contests at stake, with only city attorney, Council District 5 and two community college board seats to be decided.

This brings up again the obvious question, "do we really need to hold both a primary and general election for local races?"

More and more leaders across Los Angeles and the county are answering this question with an emphatic "no."

Since 2001, four local runoff elections have cost taxpayers nearly $23 million, including $8.3 million in 2007. And that's not counting the millions of dollars it will cost for May's runoff election.

Last fall, I was joined by council members Bill Rosendahl and Ed Reyes in calling for the use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for all city, county, LAUSD and Community College elections. Also known as instant runoff voting, RCV combines primary and runoff elections into one by having voters list from one to three their preferences for each office that is up for selection.

With RCV, if your first ranked candidate is eliminated, your vote goes to your second candidate as your runoff choice. The runoff rankings are used to elect a majority winner (50 percent, plus one) in a single election. San Francisco, which has a joint city/county government, moved to an RCV system in 2004. The city had a record turnout for a local election last year when it also pushed back their election date to coincide with state and federal elections.

Recently, the president of the LAUSD Board of Education, Monica Garcia, came out in favor of RCV, as did outgoing Board Member Julie Korenstein. Six of the seven trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District support RCV. The reason these educators are supportive of RCV is that they know runoff elections cost millions of dollars to hold - money that is badly needed in the classroom.

With the election of Mark-Ridley Thomas to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who has spoken out in favor of RCV in the past, there may be enough support to place matching measures on the 2010 ballot to utilize RCV for both city and county elections. This would avoid confusion and save millions of dollars for the city, county, LAUSD and the Community College district.

The county is currently in the process of selecting a new voting system. The city is actively involved in this process and will likely help pay part of the new equipment cost. If voters approve the change in voting system and the new equipment is in place, the city could switch to an RCV system as soon as 2011, followed by the county in 2012.

With the city facing a $37 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, an estimated $400 million to $500 million hole awaiting us next year, and a projected $1 billion margin to make up two years from now, we need to consider new ideas in order to cut our ongoing operating expenses. Switching to an RCV system will substantially cut elections costs and reduce voter fatigue.

Jose Huizar is represents the 14th District on the Los Angeles City Council. He also is the chairman of the Audits & Governmental Efficiency Committee and a member of the Budget & Finance Committee.