Idaho Falls is considering eliminating runoff elections for City Council seats.
Idaho Falls and seven cities in Idaho, including Pocatello and Blackfoot, hold runoff elections for mayor, meaning that if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote the top two candidates face off in another election a month later. However, Idaho Falls is the only one that holds runoff elections for city council, according to an email Association of Idaho Cities Policy Analyst Justin Ruen sent to Mayor Rebecca Casper in October.
By a margin of 7,359 votes to 3,393, Idaho Falls voters approved runoffs in a 2005 referendum. Since then, they have happened twice — for three City Council seats in 2013, and for mayor last year, when no candidate won a majority in the five-way race and the top two vote-getters Casper and Barbara Ehardt went on to a runoff.
At a work session Monday afternoon, Councilwoman Michelle Ziel-Dingman proposed an ordinance to eliminate runoffs for Council seats. If this passes, the top vote-getter, even if they don’t get a majority of votes cast, would win. The Council is scheduled to vote on the change at its Thursday meeting.
The city would retain runoffs in mayoral races for now. Ziel-Dingman said she thinks it’s better to wait before changing that since there was a mayoral runoff so recently.
“I just want to give that a bit of room to breathe,” she said.
Supporters of the change pointed to the cost of and lower turnout in runoffs, and that they rarely change the outcome. Ruen said in his email that there are usually one or two runoffs per election cycle and he was only aware of a runoff changing the result once in the last 17 years, which was the 2007 Eagle mayoral race.
According to a presentation to the City Council, 9,513 people voted in the 2013 Idaho Falls general election but 6,329 in the runoff. In 2017, 11,681 people voted in the November election but 8,726 in the runoff.
“It’s our first election that is more legitimate,” Casper said.
Also, the cost is going up. Bonneville County charged the city $11,693.87 to run the 2013 runoff but $43,246.53 to run last year’s, according to the presentation. Most of the increase, Ziel-Dingman said, is due to higher staffing costs.
“We’ve seen a 267 percent increase in four years,” she said. “Those costs are only going to keep going up.”
Also, Casper said, if a recount were called for in a general election race that could also go to a runoff there would be problems with the timing. The city ordinance calls for a runoff to be held 30 days after the general election, and a recount would eat up most of this, not leaving enough time to legally notice and plan for the runoff.
“We’re going to end up with a court case because there just isn’t time to do both,” she said.
According to Post Register articles from the early 2000s Brett Manwaring, who lost a 2001 mayoral race that would have gone to a runoff had that been the law at the time, was a major advocate of the runoff law, creating the group Citizens Alliance for Runoff Elections.
The City Council rejected the idea in 2003, but Manwaring continued to push the issue, and in 2005 the Council decided to hold a referendum. The Council considered repealing the runoff ordinance a couple of times since then, most recently in 2015, but didn’t.
Council President Tom Hally, who was on the Council in 2005, said the city’s lawyer at the time advised them not to advocate for or against the proposal.
“There was a certain element in the community that wanted us to deal with it,” Hally said.
Councilman Jim Freeman said he worried about moving too fast.
“I’m just a little uncomfortable that it’s happening this quickly,” he said.
Councilman John Radford agreed runoffs pose problems, but he had concerns about undoing something voters approved.
“I’m just saying the voters voted and there are 7,300 voters that said this is a good idea,” he said. “I have a little bit of pause.”
“Laws can be antiquated,” Ziel-Dingman said. “This was 13 years ago.”