Tag Archives: instant runoff voting

The Top Five Reasons for Californians to Vote No on Top Two Primaries

On 8 June 2010, voters in California will decide the fate of Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act. If Top Two primaries are adopted, all candidates for Congress and state office in California will run in the June primary on a single ballot used by all voters. Then, only the two candidates who receive the two highest vote totals will be allowed to run in the general election.

Proponents of Top Two, aware that California voters rejected the idea in 2004, have been claiming that Top Two will fix California’s government by reducing partisan gridlock. There is nothing from the experience of the states that use Top Two to support their claims. However, there is ample evidence that Top Two further entrenches incumbents and reduces voter choice. In fact, it’s more than likely that Top Two would reinforce gridlock and entrench the same politicians who created it.

Close consideration shows not only that Top Two won’t work, but also that it is unpopular, undemocratic, unconstitutional, and unnecessary. There are many good election reforms that deserve support, but Proposition 14 is not one of them. Let’s explore the top five reasons for California voters to reject Top Two:

1. Top Two won’t work.

Proponents claim that Top Two will reduce partisanship in elections, the supposed cause of dysfunction in California state government. There is nothing in the experience of the states that have used Top Two, Louisiana and Washington, to suggest that it reduces partisanship. To be honest, backers of Proposition 14 should be saying that Top Two entrenches incumbents. When Washington used Top Two for the first time in 2008, out of 123 state legislative races, 8 Congressional races, and 8 statewide races, only a single incumbent was defeated in the primary – a state legislator who had a personal scandal and would almost certainly have been defeated under any system.

The claim that Top Two will reduce gridlock in California’s legislature is baseless. In the words of election law expert Richard Winger, “The real cause of gridlock in the California legislature is the rule that budgets can only be passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature… The real solution to solve California’s budget gridlock is to eliminate the rule that the budget can only be passed with two-thirds of the legislators in each house… We should let the majority party in the legislature govern. If the voters elect a majority party, let that majority party pass its budget. If we don’t like that budget, we not only have recall, initiative or referendum, we can defeat the majority party in the next election and replace it.”

Top Two would front-load the election season with an early, make-or-break primary. In the short season before the primary, the advantage to candidates with the money to bombard voters with advertising would be multiplied many times over. In an era where special interests and their front groups can funnel billions of dollars into political campaigns, independent candidates who run on good ideas and grassroots organizing will find it virtually impossible to compete with well-funded political insiders.

It’s unrealistic, too, to expect that the press will counter this imbalance by providing the voters with fair and balanced coverage. The media already pays more attention to political horse races than to candidates’ positions on the issues. If Top Two is passed, it’s improbable that the media will suddenly make the extra effort to fully inform the voters about all their choices before the primary. More likely, media outlets will simply try to pick the likely Top Two winners based on how well known and well-funded they are, and largely ignore the other candidates.

The claim that Top Two will solve California’s political problems has no factual basis. In fact, the evidence suggests that it could make existing problems worse. Perhaps most unrealistic is the idea that limiting voters’ choices in the general election will somehow make politics better. Aside from incumbent politicians, who honestly believes that giving voters less choice in elections will improve anything?

2. Top Two is unpopular.

In 2004, California voters rejected Top Two by voting 54% against Proposition 62. In 2008, voters in nearby Oregon rejected Ballot Measure 65, which would have established a Top Two system, in a landslide of 66%.

On the other hand, instant runoff voting, an improved voting system that protects voter choice, has won approval from voters in San Francisco, Berkeley, Davis, and Oakland by margins of 56%, 72%, 55%, and 69%, respectively. Charter amendments authorizing use of instant runoff voting, or IRV, have passed in San Leandro and Santa Clara counties. After using IRV for the first time, 82% of San Francisco voters said they preferred IRV to the city’s previous election system.

The numbers don’t lie: instant runoff voting is as popular as Top Two is unpopular. So why are political insiders pushing for Top Two, which has recently been rejected by a majority of Californians and a full two-thirds of voters in Oregon?

3. Top Two is undemocratic.

By design, Top Two restricts voter choice. By cutting down the field of candidates in primary season, which is notoriously dominated by big-spending special interests and party bosses, Top Two guarantees that most independent and third-party candidates, as well as grassroots candidates in the major parties, will be out of the race before most voters and journalists are even paying attention. Opposition to Top Two from numerous election reform groups, as well as voices from across the political spectrum, demonstrates Americans’ basic understanding that limiting voter choice runs counter to the idea of democracy. Voters should have the right to vote for the candidates and parties they agree with, and the public discourse suffers when independent voices are cut out of the debate.

Proponents of Top Two often claim that it won’t hurt third parties and independents. Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, America’s leading expert on ballot access laws, explains why this is false: “In practice, [Top Two] would eliminate minor party and independent candidates from the November ballot. We know this is true because Washington State tried the system for the first time in 2008, and that’s what happened. Washington, for the first time since it became a state in 1889, had no minor party or independent candidates in November for any statewide state race or for any congressional race.”

Top Two would effectively restrict voter choice to two parties – or one party in many districts. Although the Constitution makes no mention of political parties, the practical effect of Top Two would be to give the Democratic and Republican parties a monopoly on power. Which leads to the next problem with Top Two:

4. Top Two is unconstitutional.

Americans’ First Amendment right to association gives us the right to support any political party we choose. The right of political parties to run candidates for office is violated when the electoral system is set up to make it easy for dominant parties to push everyone else off the ballot. If the Democratic and Whig parties had passed laws to protect incumbent politicians and ruling parties in the 19th century, we would probably never have had a President Abraham Lincoln or a Republican Party.

Proposition 14 would immediately disqualify the Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties, further violating their members’ First Amendment right to free association. America’s founders warned that political parties could try to use their power to further their own narrow self-interest. What would they think about a proposed law that would give two parties a virtual stranglehold on elections?

5. Top Two is unnecessary.

Instant runoff voting, an improved voting system used in San Francisco and other California cities, actually delivers the benefits that Top Two is supposed to, without the drawbacks that make Top Two worse than the status quo. Even with more than two candidates on the ballot, instant runoff voting, or IRV, ensures that the candidate with the broadest support will be the winner.

Under IRV, voters rank the candidates in their order of preference – as election reform advocates say, “IRV is as easy as 1, 2, 3.” If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and votes for the eliminated candidate are transferred to voters’ next choices. This process continues until one candidate has a majority.

Instant runoff voting has several clear advantages. It eliminates the common problem of “spoiled elections”, in which one candidate wins without majority support. In the same way, it eliminates the problem of similar candidates “splitting the vote”, and actually encourages positive campaigning, since it creates an incentive for candidates to appeal to their rivals’ supporters. Finally, since IRV produces a majority winner no matter how many candidates are on the ballot, it allows for an informative and broad debate during election season, with voters exposed to a range of views before making their decision.

Top Two is a deeply flawed system in comparison with instant runoff voting. With Top Two, vote-splitting will still be a problem in multi-candidate races. Negative campaigning will become the norm under Top Two: like a game of king of the mountain, candidates will throw each other in the mud in hopes of coming out on top.

Realistically, Top Two will not accomplish what its proponents claim, aside from producing false “majority winners” selected by a plurality of a minority of voters. In other words, when 10% of voters turn out for the Top Two primary and vote 40% for Candidate A and 35% for Candidate B, that doesn’t mean that the other 92.5% of voters are going to feel that they have a satisfactory choice in either Candidate A or B.

If Top Two passes, the political discourse will suffer, because the period between June primaries and November elections, currently the most active time for public debate, will be purged of the independent, third party, and grassroots candidates who so often bring fresh, innovative ideas to politics. Instead, the range of opinions voters hear will be restricted to two, often coming from candidates in the same party.

Instead of front-loading the election cycle with a make-or-break Top Two primary, instant runoff voting would allow all candidates to compete in the general election, when the vast majority of voters actually turn out. Voters would get to hear and consider viewpoints from a wider range of candidates in the general election, not just two candidates who may well belong to the same party. After considering what all the candidates have to say, voters could get out their instant runoff ballots and support the candidates they agree with most, without fear of inadvertently helping the candidates they agree with least. Maybe that’s why voters prefer IRV: instead of feeling pressured to support the lesser of two evils, they can support their favorite candidates – whether liberal, conservative, moderate, Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, American Independent, or just plain independent – and know that their vote won’t be wasted.

Instant runoff voting produces winners with broad majority support more reliably than Top Two, and without the problems that make Top Two worse than no reform. Why should voters accept an unnecessary and flawed system, when a better system is already gaining ground throughout California?

The top five reasons to reject Top Two – plus one

To recapitulate, Top Two won’t work – at least not like proponents claim it will. Top Two is unpopular – voters recently rejected it in California and Oregon. Top Two is undemocratic – it restricts voter choice and suppresses independent voices outside the two-party political establishment. Top Two is unconstitutional – it violates our civil rights by giving two parties an effective monopoly on power. Finally, Top Two is unnecessary, when instant runoff voting is better on all counts.

One last reason to vote against Proposition 14: Top Two is a top-down proposal. Ballot measures like Proposition 14 always seem to come from political insiders, usually with the backing of wealthy special interests to help advertise the alleged benefits of Top Two to a skeptical public. Indeed, Proposition 14 was placed on the ballot as part of a vote-trading deal by State Senator Abel Maldonado, who felt Top Two could help his ambitions for higher office. Governor Schwarzenegger has funneled $500,000 from his personal PAC into the campaign for Top Two, including money from corporations like Chevron, PG&E, and Wal-Mart. Corporations that have donated directly to the Proposition 14 effort include Hewlett Packard, Blue Shield of California, and Pacific Life Insurance Company. In the words of election reformer Christina Tobin, who is running as the Libertarian candidate for California Secretary of State, “It is safe to assume that large corporations regulated by the state want to have government in their pockets. They want to maintain the two-party status quo.”

Instant runoff voting, on the other hand, always comes from the grassroots. Campaigns for IRV are led by active citizens, community organizers and voters’ rights groups like FairVote, Californians for Electoral Reform, and the Coalition for Free and Open Elections (all of which are opposing Proposition 14). Referendum victories show that voters like the idea of IRV, and exit polls show that voters like how it works in practice. If the goal is to fix California’s election system so that it will produce winners with majority support, why are Proposition 14’s backers pushing the flawed, unpopular Top Two system instead of instant runoff voting?

All Californians who value democratic freedoms and sincerely want better elections should vote no on Proposition 14. Even members of the Republican and Democratic parties, if they heed the founders’ warnings about political factions, should recognize the danger of cementing the Democratic-Republican monopoly on power and vote no. You don’t have to be a libertarian to value the civil and political liberties of your fellow Americans. For supporters of electoral reform, Top Two is just a distraction from the real goals of instant runoff voting and other worthy reforms like proportional representation. We have better options than Top Two – options that we might not know about today, if Top Two had been in place earlier to stifle independent voices in the public arena.

Here’s what you can do to help stop Top Two:

Share this article with your friends and family.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining why you oppose Proposition 14.

Learn more about the campaign to save independent politics in California at StopTopTwo.org.


Another Special Election Merry Go-Round

If you look at state economic statistics and the consistently worsening projections as each month of revenue collection goes by, you would recognize that, even if the positive talks on closing the current budget gap result in a deal, the possibility – even probability – of another deficit requiring a revision could take hold as early as this winter.  That’s what happened last year, and if anything the economy in the state has softened since then.  At this time, the value of having a fully seated Senate and Assembly, due to the need for 54 Assembly votes and 27 Senate votes to move anything, becomes even more pronounced.  Right now, we are down one Assembly seat owing to Curren Price’s move to the Senate (owing to Mark Ridley-Thomas’ election as LA County Supervisor last November).  The CA-10 race could leave another opening if Sen. Mark DeSaulnier or Asm. Joan Buchanan emerge victorious.  And in Los Angeles, an opening on the City Council may cost the Assembly another seat for a period of time.

Los Angeles voters showed a profound disinterest in the civic election in March when just 18% turned out, but there was a virtual stampede of candidates this week to run for the San Fernando Valley seat of former City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who won the race for city controller.

The slate of 14 candidates for the Sept. 22 special election reflects the varied geography of the 2nd District, which stretches from Studio City and Sherman Oaks at its southern border, through Van Nuys, Valley Glen, North Hollywood and Sun Valley to the rugged reaches of Sunland-Tujunga at its northern edge […]

With just two months to raise money, a number of City Hall watchers are eyeing several strong contenders: former Paramount Pictures executive Chris Essel; state Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, a Democrat who lived in Burbank until moving this spring to Valley Glen; and Los Angeles Unified School District board member Tamar Galatzan.

Krekorian, who is an assistant majority leader, moved into the Council District but not out of his own Assembly District (Valley Glen is on the edge) to pursue this seat.  If he wins, it probably wouldn’t take effect until December 8, assuming that he doesn’t reach 50% +1 on September 22.  AD-51 (Curren Price’s old seat) will have a new Assemblymember by November 3 at the latest, but Joan Buchanan or Mark DeSaulnier could reach the US Congress on the same day, and Krekorian might move to the LA city council and vacate AD-43 soon after.  By the time all these special elections shake out, we’ll be well into 2010.

All of this shows the need to modernize our system of filling special elections, which always seem to be more widespread in California.  Wendy Greuel was elected City Controller back in March.  There’s little reason to drag out the search for her replacement this long.  And if we had Instant Runoff Voting for the first round, we would not need to wait two months for an additional round, paralyzing state and local government and costing the state money in setting up additional elections.  In the case of federal and state legislative elections, this is particularly perverse, since the way in which runoffs occur (with the top vote-getter in each party) almost always become useless races where the ultimate victor is well-known from the beginning.

Special Election Delays Make Yacht Party Happy Campers

CapAlert gets around to covering the issue we covered on Wednesday – how legislative vacancies on the Democratic side embolden the Yacht Party and make it more impossible to pass a decent budget.  What amazes me is that they get a Yacht Party leader to go on the record about it:

To this day, Ridley-Thomas’ seat remains unfilled. Democratic Assemblyman Curren Price of Inglewood finished first in the primary last week and is expected to take his place in the upper house after a May 19 runoff.

Of course, that will create a vacancy in the Assembly, which will likely last until early October by virtue of the state’s election-scheduling laws.

“Every vote we pick up, it is exponential for the Republicans,” said Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines. “It gives us a lot of ability to move the debate and navigate to issues that we care about.”

This is Yacht Party logic – they actually think a vacancy is a PICK-UP for them.  It’s the logic of an extortionist.  No sane person other than someone trying to exploit would agree that a less-than-full legislature for years on end makes sense from a public policy standpoint.  That’s why we could significantly reduce the time of the merry go-round AND save millions of dollars in special election costs by instituting Instant Runoff Voting for special election seats.

But the Yacht Party has no intention of fixing the policy.  They want to laugh as they see legislators walk out the door.

In Northern California, Rep. Ellen Tauscher has accepted an Obama post in the state department, though still faces the confirmation process.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, has already declared for the seat, and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, is said to be considering a run.

“Joan Buchanan should run for Congress,” said a laughing Villines, hoping for yet another vacancy in his house. “She’d be an excellent congresswoman.”

“It creates a better dynamic than having the ability of the liberal-controlled Legislature to just steamroll its own desires,” Villines said.

A better dynamic in the sense of being a fake dynamic, where the elected will of the voters is not reflected in the ability of the legislature.  I can’t think of a better argument to repeal two-thirds than these two quotes.

Ending The Special Election Merry Go-Round

Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who joined us at Calitics yesterday for an online town hall, has an op-ed with Gautam Dutta of the New America Foundation arguing for an election reform he will soon combine with a bill, to institute instant runoff voting for all special elections in California.

Here’s the root of the problem. On March 24, 2009 barely 6 percent of registered voters showed up for a special election to fill a vacancy for California’s 26th Senate District. In an area with almost 1 million residents and 400,000 registered voters, only 23,000 civic-minded citizens decided who would replace former State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas (newly elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors).

How much did this special election cost? A whopping $2.2 million of our tax dollars – nearly $100 per voter – according to the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder / County Clerk.

Unfortunately, we’re not even close to being finished. Since no candidate won a majority, we must hold a second election that will cost even more money. Because this is a heavily Democratic district, it is certain the Democratic nominee, Assemblymember Curren Price, will win. Yet Mr. Price must wait two months for a second election before he can be sworn in as State Senator.

Far from being “special”, special runoff elections cost millions of tax dollars to administer – at a time when governments have been forced to lay off schoolteachers and workers.

Obviously, the Assemblyman is making the fiscal responsibility argument for combining low-turnout special elections through IRV.  But there’s another crucial argument to be made – the irresponsible delay in proper representation in the legislature.  Mark Ridley-Thomas was elected to the LA County Board of Supervisors in November, and his replacement won’t take office until May.  That’s unacceptable, and especially so in California, where the Yacht Party uses the conservative veto to hijack the budget process.  With a faster resolution of the Ridley-Thomas seat, for example, Republicans would have one less vote to use as leverage for the budget.

And this is more acute in the case of special elections for Congress in CA-32 and CA-10.  Imagine, for example, if Sen. Gil Cedillo wins the Solis seat.  He could be replaced by a sitting Assemblymember, which is the logical scenario.  Then THAT Assembly seat needs to be filled.  By the time all the special elections and runoffs are complete, we’re well into 2010.

Enough.  Instant runoff voting is a perfectly acceptable way to divine the will of the people without the need for a separate runoff election.  The aforementioned Mark Ridley-Thomas has called for a feasibility study into IRV for these special elections.  Lieu and Dutta explain:

With 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. If IRV had been used last night, the election for the Senate district would be finished.

IRV has already been adopted by San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Memphis, and Santa Fe. Currently, Louisiana, South Carolina and Arkansas all use IRV for overseas voters. A number of prominent leaders have endorsed IRV, including: President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Influential civic groups also support IRV, including: Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles League of Women Voters, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Asian American Action Fund, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and New America Foundation.

This is not only a budget issue, it’s the right reform for California.  Let’s end the special election merry go-round.

Spin Alley

You might as well call it “The Lying Lounge,” but I just spent a little bit of time there.  It’s quite surreal, all this attention paid to people who are saying the most obvious statements imaginable (“My candidate did well!”).  But I sought out some of our California legislators, and tried to ask them about some of the issues outside of the debate that we talk about a lot.

• Rep. Hilda Solis: It was great to see Rep. Solis here!  I wasn’t aware that she was a Clinton supporter (previously she had supported Bill Richardson), and I had to look up at her sign (every “spinner” has a sign) to recognize that after she started talking to me.  She said that Hillary had a good chance to explain her proposals in a lot of detail tonight, including on health care and “green jobs.”  I mention that she was barely given a chance to mention green jobs, and asked her what she thought about the fact that every CNN debate has been sponsored by the coal industry.  “I think that’s not right,” she said.  She went on to mention some environmental justice legislation she’s co-sponsored with Sen. Clinton, and I asked her to come to Calitics and tell us about it.

• Speaker Fabian Nuñez: I didn’t want to hijack the interview, but I really wanted to hear his views in the aftermath of the health care reform failure in the State Senate.  Fortunately, someone beat me to it, and wound the conversation around to that.  After saying that Sen. Clinton “understands the complexities of the health care crisis,” he was asked about the lessons of what took place in Sacramento this week.  “That was a question of our fiscal crisis.  The State Senate felt we couldn’t afford it, and I respect their perspective.  But at the federal level, there’s a way to do it in a much more flexible way and get it paid for.  For all the reasons we couldn’t accomplish it at the state level, you can at the federal level.”  I wasn’t able to add the question of what concrete proposals we could get through this year.  But I respect that answer, maybe because it’s what I’ve been saying for a long, long time.

• Rep. Xavier Becerra: The Hollywood Democrat is an Obama supporter, and he talked about how to get his message out to Latino voters.  He talked about how his life is an embodiment of the immigrant experience and how he has worked with those communities.  I asked him about the DTS voter issue, and how to get them educated that they have to opt in to get a Democratic primary ballot, and he basically said “Yeah, we have to do that.”  Wasn’t much of an answer there.  I think this is an under-the-radar issue in this primary.

• Secretary of State Debra Bowen: On E minus-5, she seemed calm.  Bowen, in her role as elections cop, is maintaining a position of neutrality in the primary.  “It’ll be harder in the general election,” she said.  I asked her, in the aftermath of John Edwards dropping out of the race, should California look into Instant Runoff Voting so that people who voted early aren’t disenfranchised by having their candidate drop out.  She said that’s something that the parties should look into (“The Green Party would probably do it immediately”), and that it would take a good deal of voter education, too.  There are studies about voters in San Francisco who didn’t understand IRV and ended up having their vote eventually not count because they only filled out one choice.

Well, I made the best of it and tried to get the least lies possible.

AB 1294 Up for Vote this week (Instant Runoff Voting Bill)

What it’s about, courtesy Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER):

AB 1294, introduced on February 23 by Assemblymembers Gene Mullin (D-19) and Mark Leno (D-13), would allow all local jurisdictions (cities, counties, and districts [ed: the bill’s been amended so it’s just cities and counties now]) to use ranked voting systems to elect their representatives. The bill would allow these jurisdictions to use Instant Runoff Voting for single-winner elections or Choice Voting (a ranked voting system similar to IRV) for multiple-winner elections. It would also add to the state Elections Code the guidelines and procedures registrars and equipment vendors need to count and report ranked voting elections.

I heard from co-author Mark Leno’s office today that they expect a vote on it in the next day or two in the Assembly.

If you like instant runoff voting, consider visiting CfER’s AB 1294 action page, which has easy to understand bullet points you can put in a quick letter to your Assembly and Senate reps.

Bringing attention to this bill could be very helpful as the legislature is currently wading through a boatload of proposed legislation right now. 

The Times Finally Gets It on Election Reform in LA

The LA Times gets downright progressive about voting reform, in the wake of the horrible turnout for Tuesday’s school board runoff, where $9 million dollars in voting infrastructure and campaign expenditures yielded a 6% turnout.

A much better solution is to use instant runoff voting, an electoral method that elects a majority winner in a single election.

Here’s how it works: Voters rank the candidates in their order of preference instead of just picking one candidate. If a candidate wins a majority of first rankings, the election is over, just like now. But if no candidate wins a majority of first rankings, voters’ other rankings are used to determine the winner instantly. The candidate with the fewest first rankings is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first can now have their second choice counted. All ballots are recounted in the “instant runoff,” and the process of dropping the last-place candidate continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes […]

Because this method of voting would save millions of tax dollars, part of that money could be used for an expansion of Los Angeles’ public financing system, which might produce more candidates and more competition – which could induce higher voter turnout.

Los Angeles also could change to an all vote-by-mail system. Oregon votes this way, as does Burbank, and it has led to higher turnout in non-November elections. It also saves tax dollars by avoiding the high costs of setting up polling stations and hiring election workers.

Color me shocked.  over…

Maybe it takes a disaster like the school board election to make people see the light.  Of course, IRV and vote by mail and public financing have been around for decades.  They were seen as flaky Birkenstock ideas at one point; only some hippie commune like San Francisco could use Instant Runoff Voting, right?  But if the staid LA Times can figure out that IRV is efficient, smart and leads to better campaigning. 

I am very hopeful that this work will get done in Los Angeles to make voting more in line with the 21st century.  Now there’s one more hurdle to clear.  We just need the Governor to sign the National Popular Vote bill that would reform the electoral college by eliminating the outdated and anti-democratic idea.  The Governor has taken no position on the bill this year.  He ought to be urged to sign it.