Sex, Lies, and Audiotape: Why We Need Instant Runoff Voting
By Gautam Dutta and Amanda Fowler
New America Foundation
When a lawmaker brags about his sexual exploits, taxpayers beware: it might end up costing us millions of tax dollars.
The trouble began last summer, when then-Assemblymember Mike Duvall (R-Yorba Linda) boasted about his extramarital affairs to a colleague – over a live microphone. In the outcry that followed, Duvall was forced to resign his Orange County seat – setting the stage for a costly election to replace him. The total cost of this “special” election? Nearly $2 million.
Last month, barely one-sixth of voters went to the polls to decide Duvall’s successor. But even though taxpayers have already shelled out close to $750,000 for this election, the Duvall saga is not yet over. Instead, because no one received a majority (50 percent plus 1), the race is headed for an equally expensive runoff.
Making matters worse, the January 12 runoff will be no more than an expensive formality. Even though Republican candidates won a whopping 70 percent of the vote, the top votegetter from each party will now advance to the January 12 runoff: Republican Chris Norby (37 percent of the vote), Democrat John MacMurry (27 percent), and Green Party Candidate Jane Rands (2.8 percent). In this GOP-heavy district, it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out who's the odds-on favorite to win.
Unfortunately, this scenario is nothing new. Traditionally, California special runoff elections are marked by high costs, low voter turnout, and high margins of victory. And because of our perfunctory runoff system, residents of the 72nd District must wait another two months to move past the Duvall controversy and, more importantly, regain representation in the State Assembly.
Between scandals and politicians’ office-hopping, special elections cannot be avoided. Fortunately, there’s a proven, practical way to rescue hapless voters and taxpayers: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
In a nutshell, IRV does away with costly runoff elections, by allowing voters to elect a majority winner in one single election. With IRV, voters rank their choices (1, 2, 3), and their rankings are then used to determine the majority winner.
IRV will relieve voter fatigue, save taxpayer dollars, and shave the amount of time people must go without representation. But just as important, IRV will also make our leaders more accountable: by encouraging them to run cleaner, more issue-based campaigns.
Anyone who followed this election knows that negative campaigning quickly became the candidates’ main strategy. Mailers from the top GOP candidates focused more on political and sexual improprieties than on the issues actually affecting voters. This strategy, where candidates try to drive their opponents’ voters away from the polls, has become all too common.
But with IRV, candidates have a strong incentive not to launch personal attacks. Indeed, if IRV had been used last week, Chris Norby would have been less inclined to attack fellow Republican Linda Ackerman, since he would have been vying for the second-choice rankings of her supporters. IRV rewards candidates who reach out to the entire electorate – a positive change that will help elected officials regain public trust and respect.
A growing number of cities are turning to IRV, which is used widely across the country and around the world. In recent years, Oakland, San Francisco, Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Santa Fe have all adopted IRV, and the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach are seriously considering it. What’s more, IRV is currently used in Ireland, London, Australia, and New Zealand.
To no surprise, IRV has already attracted broad, bipartisan support: Barack Obama, John McCain, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, State Controller John Chiang, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Assemblymember Ted Lieu, California Common Cause, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Asian American Action Fund, former Congressmember Tom Campbell, and many others.
A commonsense solution to a persistent problem, IRV will save money and make our democracy stronger. It’s time for California to stop settling for “politics as usual”. It’s time to adopt IRV for our special elections.
Gautam Dutta is Political Reform Deputy Director and Amanda Fowler is the Political Reform Associate for the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.