The Grinch Who Steals Our Elections

Note: This piece was coauthored by Gautam Dutta and former Congressmember (and 2010 GOP California gubernatorial candidate) Tom Campbell.

This Christmas season, the Grinch is about to steal nearly $2 million of our tax dollars - for an election we simply don't need.

Last month, Governor Schwarzenegger tapped then-State Senator John Benoit to succeed the deceased Roy Wilson on Riverside County's Board of Supervisors. (As an added perk, the Governor even gets to fill all midterm vacancies in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.)

That's where the trouble began. Because Senate vacancies cannot be filled by appointment, a special election had to be called to replace Benoit. The cost of this election? Close to $2 million - at a time when Riverside County must decide whether to tap its reserves or slash public-safety spending.

Adding insult to injury, it will probably take half a year for Benoit's former 37th Senate District to regain representation in the statehouse. On April 13, 2010, voters will head to the polls to choose Benoit's successor. Already, several potential candidates have emerged: GOP Assemblymembers Russ Bogh, Bill Emmerson and Jeff Miller, as well as Palm Springs school leader Justin Blake, a Democrat.

The April 13 election alone will cost taxpayers a whopping $1.3 million. In past years, the state government has helped counties defray some election-administration costs. But with Sacramento facing a dire, $21 billion deficit, the chances for any state reimbursement are slim to none. For this "special" election, Riverside County is on its own.

However, neither voters nor taxpayers will be off the hook after April - because no candidate is expected to win a majority (50 percent plus 1). Instead, the top votegetter from each party will advance to a June 8 runoff.

That's where things get loopy. In this GOP-leaning district, it's very possible that the top two votegetters will both be Republican. But if that happens, only one of them will qualify for the June runoff. Meanwhile, the top Democratic votegetter will automatically qualify - even if he finishes last.

This problem is nothing new. In Orange County, voters and taxpayers have been dealt a special election of their own, after a sex scandal forced then-Assemblymember Mike Duvall to resign. And early next year, yet another special election will strike, this time in Los Angeles County. There, voters must replace former Assemblymember Paul Krekorian, who himself won a special election for the Los Angeles City Council.

Between resignations and politicians' office-hopping (even in Hawai'i), 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. With IRV, we could elect Sen. Benoit's successor in one election, not two - and save $1.3 million of our tax dollars.

Beyond saving taxpayer dollars and relieving voter fatigue, IRV will also make our leaders more accountable: by encouraging them to run cleaner, more issue-based campaigns.

Instead of discussing issues that voters care about, candidates frequently resort to vicious mailers and attack ads. Their strategy is simple: make your opponents look so bad that not even their own mother would vote for them.

But with IRV, candidates will have a strong incentive not to launch personal attacks. Why? Because to win majority support, candidates must aggressively vie for the second-choice rankings of their opponents' voters. Indeed, IRV rewards candidates who reach out to every voter - 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 IRV. And, starting next year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will use IRV to select the Oscars' Best Picture.

To no surprise, IRV has already attracted broad, bipartisan support: Barack Obama, John McCain, California League of Women Voters, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, State Controller John Chiang, former Congressmember Tom Campbell, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Assemblymember Ted Lieu, California Common Cause, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, New America Foundation, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Asian American Action Fund, and many others.

A practical solution to a pressing problem, IRV will save our money and make our democracy stronger.

It's time to banish California's Election Grinch. It's time to adopt IRV for special elections.

-- Gautam Dutta & Tom Campbell