Has the time come for Instant Runoff Voting?

Public Affairs Consultant specializing in Issue Advocacy and Strategic Communications

Here in Los Angeles, an effort is underway to place an "instant runoff initiative" on the city’s Nov. 4 ballot.

As in San Francisco, L.A.’s instant runoff election would allow voters to vote by ranking their choices in numerical order. If no candidate earns a majority of the first choices, the last-place candidate is eliminated and votes are re-tallied based on voters’ preferences. The process is repeated until a candidate has received a majority of the votes for candidates who have not been eliminated.

Sound confusing? Yes, but it’s a system worth considering.

The backers of instant run-off voting say that it will increase voter turnout and reduce negative campaigning. I don’t buy that argument at all, but I do buy this argument: it will save the city money by only having one election!

In Los Angeles, the city spends approximately $5 million to hold an election. Incumbents almost always get re-elected, so there is not much voter or media interest in city elections unless there is an open seat. Last year, the voter turnout was 6 percent in the May runoff, and 10 percent in the primary. There was turnover on the LAUSD board, but all of the incumbent city councilmembers were easily re-elected, and not one of them was forced into a runoff.

Will instant runoff voting result in increased turnout and more positive campaigns? Based on my experiences working on campaigns and familiarity with polling, I don’t think so, but don’t take my word for it.

The theory behind more positive campaigns is that since voters can rank their preferences, there is more of an incentive for candidates to be positive so that voters rank them in their top two.

Perhaps, but that still does not take away the incentive for candidates to beat up their opponents, nor does it address the source of most campaign attacks-independent expenditures.

Nonetheless, the City of L.A. is struggling to make spending cuts as are most cities these days. If instant runoff voting can save the city $5 million next year, it’s an idea worth considering. And for junkies like me, it will make the political seaon more fun!

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