California has a special election problem, and it’s getting worse.
Take the three special elections in April for state Assembly. Two female candidates hoped to improve gender equity in the Capitol, especially important since two seats came open when male incumbents resigned due to sexual harassment claims. One featured a teenage candidate, in this moment of heightened youth activism.
Despite the high stakes and compelling storylines, voter turnout in the three districts averaged 8 percent, even lower than the 12 percent average turnout for special elections last year.
And two of the three races lacked an outright winner, so there will be June runoffs that will likely have even lower turnout, making our elections less representative. The Democrats will likely win in these heavily Democratic districts, but voters have to wait to be represented.
This is expensive and bad for democracy, and it doesn’t have to be this way. If California conducted instant runoff elections with ranked choice voting – joining Maine and a growing number of cities nationwide – the state would save millions of dollars and ensure fairer outcomes.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, the 16 special elections from 2013 to 2017 in Los Angeles County cost $18.6 million. San Francisco has avoided runoffs by using ranked choice voting and saved more than $4 million.
Ranked choice voting is a proven and simple method that simulates runoff elections but in one trip to the polls. Voters rank candidates in order of choice: first, second, third, and so on. If a candidate secures more than half of first choices, they win. If not, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and those votes go to each voter’s next ranked choice. The process continues until a winner earns the needed 50 percent plus one.
Allowing voters to rank candidates gives them more choices. In places where one party is dominant, voters ought to be able to select from competing perspectives without fear of electing the candidate they like least. Ranked choice voting also reduces the risk of candidates not running because they don’t want to split the vote and divide the community.
Our politics can be better. Just ask the voters of Santa Fe, N.M. The city conducted its first municipal elections with ranked choice voting in March. Not only did voter turnout soar, but voters and candidates celebrated the campaign’s serious and civil tone. The city’s diversity will be reflected in its elected officials and the new mayor takes office with a real majority rather than an unrepresentative plurality.
This has also happened in Bay Area cities that use ranked choice voting, where more women and people of color are running and winning.
California often leads with its innovations. Let’s expand ranked choice voting, starting with special elections. We can show the country what democracy should really look like.