How to Save Millions On Elections


gautam-dutta2tedlieu1Let’s be blunt: Calbuzz has an abiding self-interest in elections – the more elections, the greater the pressing need for blindingly insightful political analysis, gossip, speculation and cheap shots. Even we, however, have a hard time defending the exorbitant costs of  the constant round of special elections triggered by musical chairs politics of California. With our interest in all manner of political reform, Calbuzz today offered space to the New America Foundation to discuss a modest proposal for electoral reform that  could save millions.

By Gautum Dutta and Ted Lieu
Special to Calbuzz

California faces a crater-size, $24 billion deficit – and we’re about to throw away millions more on three elections we don’t need. But here’s the good news: If we adopt Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, for special elections, we can save that amount and more.

With IRV, taxpayers could save nearly $2 million July 14 (fittingly, Bastille Day).

On May 19, barely 18 percent of voters participated in a special election to replace Hilda Solis, who gave up her 32nd Congressional District seat to become labor secretary. Eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian ran in this contentious race.

Although she finished first, Judy Chu did not win outright because she fell short of a majority (50 percent plus one). The race now goes to a July 14 runoff election – but it won’t be between the top two finishers, who were both Democrats. Instead, the top Democrat (Chu) will square off against the top Republican (who placed fourth with 10 percent of the vote) and the top Libertarian (who barely mustered 1 percent).

Three things are certain in this race. First, Chu is the odds-on favorite in this overwhelmingly Democratic district. (Last year, 68 percent of its voters chose Barack Obama for president.) Second, taxpayers face a steep tab for this election. According to the Los Angeles County Clerk/Registrar Recorder, it will cost taxpayers over $1.5 million.

Finally, a minuscule number of fatigued voters (perhaps as low as 7 percent) will show up for the July 14 runoff. While the voters stay home, the taxpayers’ tab goes up: The cost of administering the runoff will approach a staggering $100 per voter.

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

Under 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.

The recent special runoff was no isolated case. In fact, a whopping seven of California’s past 11 special elections for federal or state office have gone on to runoffs. In all of those elections, the top candidate from the majority party has always won the runoff.

These “special” elections have exacted a heavy fiscal toll. In the past two years, $9.3 million has been spent in Southern California alone on special elections. Of that amount, more than $3.6 million was spent on special runoff elections (including the upcoming July 14 Congressional runoff).

What’s more, this cascade of vacancy elections will continue unabated. By year’s end, voters in Ladera Heights will have been asked to vote a total of five times! In the fall, we’ll have races to replace Assemblyman Curren Price (now state senator-elect) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Obama’s nominee for undersecretary of state). The tab to us taxpayers? More than $5 million.

IRV has already been adopted by San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Memphis and Santa Fe. In addition, Arkansas, Illinois and Louisiana currently use IRV for overseas voters. Recently, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors held its first hearing on IRV. What’s more, the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Pasadena are seriously considering IRV.

A number of leaders and civic groups have endorsed IRV, including Obama, Sen. John McCain, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Los Angeles City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, California Common Cause, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Asian American Action Fund and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

As part of the governor’s proposed budget solutions after the May 19 statewide budget election, he should include using IRV, as it would save critical funds and chip away at our dire $24 billion shortfall.

Let’s do away with our multimillion-dollar election madness. Let’s 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).

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There are 7 comments for this post

  1. avatar doughnut70 says:

    IRV has substantial problems which the authors of this article have chosen to overlook. Beyond the obvious fact that voters lose the chance for a second look at the candidates in a runoff campaign, you also get much larger numbers of fringe candidates elected than you do with a normal system. They used to use IRV in New York City in the 30’s until voters accidently elected three members of the Communist party to the City Council (none of whom had any real following). What happens is that in a contested race, voters will rank their serious opponents last to try and hold them down and a non serious opponent will often pull out a victory. To really simplify the issue, in the Bush/Gore election of 2000, picture all of Bush’s supporters and all of Gore’s supporters picking Ralph Nader as their second choice over their major party opponent. Nader would have been elected President. There are flukes in any electoral process, but the number of situations like the one I described have happened much more often in places with IRV voting.

  2. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Hey, guys, the site looks terrific!

  3. avatar Chuck O'Neil says:

    doughnut70 has a few misconceptions about IRV that need correcting.
    Yes, with IRV one doesn’t get a second look at the top candidates of each party. But how many looks do voters need? In runoff elections the campaigning turns very negative. Do voters really learn anything with a second look? Is this worth the millions of dollars taxpayers pay for this second election?

    I don’t know where the evidence is that “large numbers of fringe candidates get elected” IRV assures that the winner has a majority of the votes. A candidate that wins a majority is not a fringe candidate.

    The 30’s election in New York was not IRV but a similar voting method called Proportional Representation. Communists at the time were popular and didn’t carry the bad connotations that Stalin and propagandists gave to the Communist name. There was a significant labor movement and dissatisfaction during the great depression and there were many who thought communism was an answer. Like IRV these candidates winning was not an “accident” They had a significant number of supporters that elected them. In fact with proportional representation the number of elected communists were in proportion to the number of New York voters who supported them. The fact is that in the 30’s there was a lot of support for communists in heavy urban areas with lots of unemployment.

    Under IRV, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated first. Thus in the 2000 election Nader would have been eliminated before either Gore or Bush second choice votes were transferred. Nader votes would have transferred largely to Gore but some to Bush as well. Voters for Bush and Gore would not have had their second choice votes counted because either Bush or Gore would have had a majority before either was eliminated. Using IRV, it would have been impossible to elect Nader unless there truly was a majority favoring Nader.

    Perhaps doughnut70 is confusing IRV with “approval” or “range voting” where voting for anyone other than one’s first choice will help elect second and third choices rather than the voter’s first choices.

    For a better understanding I recommend referring to CFER.0rg the Californians for Electoral Reform web site or to Fair Vote, fairvote.com.. Both give a more complete explanation with links to other sites.

    Chuck O’Neil

  4. avatar david says:

    Another huge problem with IRV is simply that campaigns matter. People change their minds over time, in response to candidate messages — and that’s a good thing. (Look at the recent Democratic primary for governor of Virginia.) IRV short-circuits this process, by forcing people to make all their decisions at once. When a field is narrowed to 2 candidates, those candidates may be prompted to make different decisions and commitments, and change what they would do in office. Under IRV, voters must decide without knowing.

    Also, IRV privileges voters who are highly educated and highly informed about process. A voter who understands the nuances between candidates, and who understands how to use the ranked voting system, is going to have more power in the outcome than someone who simply knows which candidate he or she prefers.

    That’s not to say that other systems are problem-free. They aren’t. But neither is IRV.

  5. avatar rrichard63 says:

    doughnut70 and david both like having two rounds of campaigning and a chance to rethink their votes. This has it’s problems, though. Perhaps the most important is the lower (often much lower) turnout in one round or the other. Fewer people participate in the decision, which is bad for democracy.

    In addition top-two can provide an opportunity for strategic voting, where supporters of A can sometimes benefit from getting some of their fellow supporters to vote for C, the weakest of A’s opponents, so that A doesn’t have to face B in the runoff. While no voting method can be completely free from all such incentives for strategic manipulation, IRV is at least as resistant to manipulation as any alternative.

    Finally, there’s the cost. This includes the direct cost to the public for election administration, but also the cost of two campaigns for two candidates — making them even more dependent on contributions. And the cost to voters of a second trip to the polls. Experience shows that this cost falls disproportionately on the less well-to-do and less educated, who are less likely to vote in both rounds.

    David, several research studies of IRV in San Francisco and Burlington, VT looked for evidence to support your assertion that IRV favors the well educated. There is no such evidence. IRV is accepted, understood and used effectively by voters in all districts of these cities, regardless of income, ethnicity and education.

  6. avatar miquel95929 says:

    How about statewide mail Ballot ala Oregon with people able to return them to ballot sites anywhere in the state(not only in county as it is now). We could also require that regularly occuring elections be consolidated with the Presidential/Governor elections so that voters don’t get fatigued.Take away the Governors ability to call special elections unless a recall qualifies and then no outside props.

  7. avatar irvlies says:

    the sheer amount of lies the IRV proponents tell to foister this system on us is amazing. It’s been a disaster in San Francisco – and in most cases a waste of time. People don’t vote “strategically” like some people here are saying – in most cases they either leave it blank or just put in people at random. more lies from the liars who peddle this as saving money – when in fact they are big-government liberals who would love to spend more tax dollars.

    if anything IRV in SF has given us losers like Ed Jew, who was recently busted for fraud. And it didn’t make campaigns nicer – they are way nastier since it’s all or nothing on one day. and no one endorses 1-2-3 except the communists at the Guardian, so again more lies from the pro IRV people.

    Ted Lieu will never get my vote since he endorses this crapola. He’s either stupid or lying when he perpetuates these myths. And the pro IRV people need to be clear about their radical agenda to get the Socialist Worker’s Party, radical environmentalists and other wack job parties that have no hope of winning because they are offensive to most people, and lose. the IRV people want the wackos IN government to shove their radical ideas down our throats.

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