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Runaway, Budget-Busting Runoffs

Ted Lieu and Gautam Dutta // Published April 1, 2009 in California Progress Report

California State Assemblymember Ted Lieu and New America Foundation Political Reform Program Deputy Director Gautam Dutta explain why instant runoff voting would be preferable to California's current runoff system.

This year, California state and local governments will spend close to $10 million on at least three elections we do not need. That makes no sense amidst California’s and our nation’s brutal recession.

Here’s the root of the problem. On March 24, 2009 barely 6 percent of registered voters showed up for a special election to fill a vacancy for California’s 26th Senate District. In an area with almost 1 million residents and 400,000 registered voters, only 23,000 civic-minded citizens decided who would replace former State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas (newly elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors).

How much did this special election cost? A whopping $2.2 million of our tax dollars – nearly $100 per voter – according to the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder / County Clerk.

Unfortunately, we’re not even close to being finished. Since no candidate won a majority, we must hold a second election that will cost even more money. Because this is a heavily Democratic district, it is certain the Democratic nominee, Assemblymember Curren Price, will win. Yet Mr. Price must wait two months for a second election before he can be sworn in as State Senator.

Far from being “special”, special runoff elections cost millions of tax dollars to administer — at a time when governments have been forced to lay off schoolteachers and workers.

Was yesterday’s race an isolated case? Hardly. Get ready for a slew of special runoff elections to follow in the weeks ahead. Once Assemblymember Price takes office as State Senator, another special election will be called to fill his seat in the State Assembly. If that seat is won by another elected official, yet another special election must be called to fill that vacancy. What’s more, two more special elections will soon be held to replace two California Congressmembers who have joined the Obama Administration: Hilda Solis (Secretary of Labor) and Ellen Tauscher (Undersecretary of State-Designate).

If no candidate wins a majority in any of these elections (which is likely), a second election will be necessary – costing taxpayers millions of dollars more, as well as burning out voters from too many elections. Between now and Halloween, voters in Ladera Heights will be asked to vote three more times; residents of the San Fernando Valley and other parts of Los Angeles will be asked to vote at least two more times. Meanwhile, taxpayers are left to pick up the multi-million dollar tabs.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to conduct special elections to fill vacancies. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Using IRV would allow us to elect majority winners using one election, instead of two.

With 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. If IRV had been used last night, the election for the Senate district would be finished.

IRV has already been adopted by San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Memphis, and Santa Fe. Currently, Louisiana, South Carolina and Arkansas all use IRV for overseas voters. A number of prominent leaders have endorsed IRV, including: President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Influential civic groups also support IRV, including: Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Asian American Action Fund, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and New America Foundation.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ proposal to study IRV: specifically, how IRV can save taxpayer dollars while reducing voter fatigue. The Board of Supervisors will take up this important issue at its May 12 meeting.

As part of the Governor’s proposed budget solutions after the May 19 statewide budget election, he should include using IRV for special elections to save funds and help defray budget shortfalls.

It’s time to do away with needless, costly runoff elections. It’s time to 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 is a California Assemblymember (53rd District).