A Crowded, Costly Special Election that Risks Low Voter Turnout - Better Elections are Possible

Posted by Jennifer Pae on March 03, 2017

The race for Xavier Becerra’s former seat in the 34th Congressional District is just around the corner. Twenty-three candidates entered the race to represent the neighborhoods of Central, East, and Northeast Los Angeles. This April 4th special election sets up challenging dynamics -- and a June 6th runoff will postpone voters in the 34th district having a true voice.

Most obviously, the large field makes it difficult to achieve a majority win for the community. Voters will likely split their votes among the 23 candidates running, and none will come close to receiving 50% of support. This means the state will need to hold two elections -- an initial “primary” to narrow the field to two, and then a “general” election to determine a majority winner, which will cost taxpayers more than $1.3 million to cast and count.

Holding two elections raises concerns about disparities in voter participation. A report released by FairVote found that all but 7 of the 190 regularly scheduled primary runoffs in the U.S House and U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2016 turnout decreased in the runoff. In other words, in 96% of primary runoff elections fewer people voted in the second round than in the first. And of course, special elections already tend to have low turnout. The inherent challenge is how do we ensure the highest participation so that a candidate is fully representative of the district?

A proven solution for one-round special elections is ranked choice voting (RCV), otherwise known as instant runoff voting. RCV gives voters the freedom to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. All first choices are counted and if any candidate has a majority of the vote (50%+1) they win, just like any other election. If no candidate has a majority, an instant runoff starts. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters for that candidate have their vote instantly count for their next choice in the race. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes and is declared the winner.

In addition to saving costs by implementing one decisive special election rather than two, RCV maximizes participation by only asking voters to show up once. It also allows voters to vote for their true preferences based on their hopes and values, instead of a fear of “splitting the vote” among candidates from the same community.

Furthermore, RCV improves the relationship between candidates and voters. Candidates have incentive to reach out beyond their base and ask voters to rank them second, and find common ground with opponents. This means the winner is more broadly representative, has a stronger mandate to lead, and learns more about their future constituents.

In a detailed two-year study of RCV in four Bay Area cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, researchers found that voters understand RCV well and widely support it, including a majority of voters supporting its continued use. After all, people rank options when making choices every day -- from the ice cream store to the brewery. Researchers found that RCV encourages candidates to run more civil campaigns, which is needed now more than ever

In our current system, the reality is that front-running candidates don’t have any incentive to reach out and appeal to the broadest base of voters. Instead they will isolate their base, and hope that their segment of the electorate -- often times less than 30% of voters -- is large enough to advance them to the next round. However, with RCV, a voter’s second choice is also valuable and candidates need to reach out to them. Instead of feeling like their voices went unheard, these voters now have a meaningful voice throughout the democratic process, and the candidate that wins, has a stronger mandate because of it.

RCV has improved elections in cities and states across the country, as well as in colleges, organizations, and elections worldwide. Eleven cities around the country across six states use RCV for their elections, including Minneapolis, MN. In 2018, Maine will become the first state to use RCV for all state and congressional elections. At least 16 California colleges use RCV, including UCLA, and the Oscars used it to pick Best Picture.

Since our election system has a direct impact on who will be representing us, it’s important for California to continue leading the way and be a model for better elections. Let’s implement a proven election system like ranked choice voting -- not just for special elections like the 34th Congressional District, but for all races.

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  • Jennifer Pae