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Monday, October 12, 2009

Instant Run-Off Voting: Coming Soon?

Under the Long Beach City Charter elections for City Council go as follows: Every two years either the even Council Districts (2, 4, 6 and 8) or the odd Council Districts (1, 3, 5, 7 and 9) have elections. Each council term is four years and current election law, as amended several years ago by the electorate, limits individuals to two terms in office; or rather as former Mayor Beverly O'Neill showed an incumbent finishing his or her second term cannot be on the ballot for another term, but can be elected by winning the election on write in ballots.

So every even year Long Beach has elections for City Council seats. The process is pretty simple, qualified candidates register and a primary is held. Since the offices are supposedly non-partisan no party affiliations are listed on the ballot. A primary election is held, unless there is only one candidate registered in which case there is no election (see 2008 elections). After the votes are tabulated, if one person gets 50% plus one vote s/he is declared the winner and will be installed as a member of the City Council. If no one achieves the 50% plus 1 threshold the top two vote getters have a run off several months later. The electorate then decides between the two candidates and the winner wins the election. To recap: unlimited number of candidates on the ballot, a primary election, if no candidate wins 50% plus one vote then a run off is held.

In years where an incumbent is being termed out the ballot fills up with anywhere from three to ten candidates, lately if there is an incumbent on the ballot s/he runs unopposed and there is no election for the seat. In years with multiple candidates there is always a run-off election after the primary. Here is where an issue develops. Elections cost money and to have a primary and then a general, or run-off, election creates additional costs for the city, in fact the run-off elections cost the city in excess of $1 million per the city clerk. If only these pesky elections did not cost so much! (Which they did not in 2008 as there was no election in the 2nd, 4th or 8th council districts due to lack of candidates beyond the incumbents and the 6th District was a landslide for Councilman Dee Andrews). But if there had been four run-off elections, well that could have cost the city $1 million. And that potential cost has many in Long Beach, and other cities, looking to reduce the number of elections that are held. What price democracy? Evidently for some in Long Beach not one million dollars.

Ah-ha! But they don't have to cost that much because of the latest trend in democracy: Instant Run-Off Voting! Instant Run-Off Voting, or IRV, allows voters to rank their preferences on the ballot from 1 to 3 with 1 being the most favored candidate. After the election if no one has 50% plus 1 of the total votes ranked number 1 then a run-off is held. The candidate with the least number of #1 votes is eliminated from the ballot and all his #2 votes are given to remaining candidates and votes are re-tabulated, no winner? Eliminate the remaining lowest vote getter and redistribute his #2 votes and recount the ballots. This process is continued until one candidate has the majority of the votes and is declared a winner. By ranking preferences the voter is saying, "if my candidate does not win the person I would next like to win is...." political scientists take this to mean, "if my candidate does not win this is who I would vote for in a run off election."

IRV is a pretty simple process, but so is making toast, programming a VCR or DVR and using turn signals and plenty of people get some or all of those wrong; which is one of the main criticisms of IRV: it is too complicated for voters to understand and there are plenty who do in fact screw up their IRV ballots (ubiquitous Florida joke here where it was shown even a regular ballot is beyond many voters). What about those who rank backwards? What about those who in a show of protest only put down 2's or 3's showing displeasure with all the candidates? How many voters will only put down a number 1?

In Long Beach, City Council must approve placing an Amendment to the City Charter on the ballot to change our voting procedure to Instant Run Off Voting. Supporting this so far are Robert Garcia, Suja Lowenthal and Gary DeLong, most vociferous in opposition at this point is 4th District Councilman Patrick O'Donnell. At this point there is no decision on Instant Run-Off Voting, my question is why not put it on the ballot and let the voters decide?

Here are some of the major reasons given to favor IRV:

* It saves money by eliminating elections
* It reduces "voter fatigue"
* It encourages more candidates to run for office
* It reduces mud-slinging as candidates run for voters #2 votes

Google "Instant Run-Off Voting" and you will see plenty of sites devoted to its cause. In reading through the different sites, seeing where it has been put into place and seeing where most of the support comes from it does appear to have a partisan support base in that most of it comes from the left or liberal side of politics. Not that it does not have its supporters from the right, see the support given by DeLong, but the overwhelming support is from the left side of the spectrum. And that is one of my biggest reactions to IRV: it will reduce the opportunity for candidates with opposing views, solutions to problems and approaches to big issues from engaging one-on-one for the voters as they do in a run-off.

Those who prefer the most liberal, or conservative, political approach number 1, then the next most ideological number 2, then the third most number 3. As a result, in my district for instance, the candidate who might have the second most number of number 1 votes could be a fiscal conservative, but could lose the election without a chance to challenge someone directly, instead he challenges a field of similar candidates. Might he have lost anyway? Sure, but the voters have not had a chance to see two candidates with opposing ideas go at it. Instead because of the voter base candidates know they must only appeal to one side of the spectrum and fight within that spectrum for number 2 and 3 votes--the opposing ideological side is discounted. I see IRV as reducing political dialogue.

Councilman O'Donnell was kind enough to send me a list of why he opposes IRV at this time, mostly he wants more time to pass so we can see the effects of IRV on other communities. One of his arguments is "IRV is being pushed as the new trend and cutting were term limits at one point...look before you jump." I could not agree more.

As I have told people who have asked, I am opposed to IRV. I do not feel a decision to alter democracy and our most fundamental right: to elect our representatives in government, should be decided because of cost. In my opinion IRV limits political discourse. Finally, with IRV we can, and probably will, end up with all our representatives holding office with none of them having received a majority of the votes from the citizens. Since when in America do we run for second best? Elevate to winner third place finishers?

All this said, I am open to debate and discourse on IRV. If it goes on the ballot is will pass, it has every where else it has been on ballots so far, because of the number of national organizations that support the idea and will flood Long Beach with pro-IRV material and information. As with any campaign it will come down to which side has more money and because of the national movements the pro-IRV side wins that contest from my research--and that is the price of this democracy.


Bob Schilling said...

I think I'm with you on IRV. It seems to me that there's too much room for mischief in all that reallocation. Elections should be clear and straightforward, even more so when they're close. I'll pay the tax increment. Let's just choose the best candidate and count.

Sheryl said...

I like the idea of IRV. It will make it easier to vote for long-shot candidates to show support without "wasting" a vote.

But I don't want to see it on the ballot. I've come to really hate any and all ballot measures. As you said, they're more about which side has more money and better propaganda than about the merits of the issue.