Carrie: The I.F. City Council meets Monday to discuss the run-off election requirement for City Council members.
Jerry: What that’s about?
Carrie: In 2005, a citywide voter referendum was held asking whether candidates who win mayoral or city council races with less than 50 percent-plus-one of the votes should go into a “run-off” race against the second place opponent. The concern was that in races with multiple candidates, you could end up being governed by somebody who didn’t win a majority.
Jerry: Isn’t that what happened in the 2001 mayoral race?
Carrie: Yes, Linda Milam won a four-way race with 46.3 percent. One of her opponents worked to get the run-off placed on a voter referendum for the mayoral and city council elections, and 68 percent voted yes.
Jerry: Wow, that’s an impressive supermajority.
Carrie: Nowadays, several Idaho cities require run-offs for their mayoral elections but only Idaho Falls requires run-offs for city council elections.
Jerry: Has it solved the problem?
Carrie: No. Since the rule was instituted, there has been one mayoral and three city council run-off elections. Each time, the top vote-getter went on to win the run-off.
Jerry: So it didn’t change the outcome at all.
Carrie: Correct. A big problem is that the run-off election is held in early December. It results in a much lower voter turnout because most of us are tired of elections and more interested in Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday events.
Jerry: I’m concerned it disenfranchises voters like the snowbirds and military folks because it’s hard to get their absentee ballots filed in time. Bad weather in December can also deter voters.
Carrie: There are also expenses. The most recent mayoral run-off race costs city taxpayers an additional $43,246.
Jerry: Are there alternatives?
Carrie: They could eliminate the run-off altogether.
Jerry: But doesn’t that mean a City Council member could get elected by a small minority?
Carrie: Yes. That can happen in races with multiple candidates. For example, in May 2018 five candidates ran in the Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor. Janice McGeachin was the top vote-getter with only 28.9 percent. As the Republican winner in ruby-red Idaho, she easily went on to win the November general election.
Jerry: Sounds like that could give fringe candidates an edge?
Carrie: Exactly. Another option is the “instant run-off” sometimes referred to as “voter ranking.”
Carrie: It’s complicated. On the ballot, you vote your first, second and third choice for each race. If the top vote-getter doesn’t get a majority, the candidates with the least number of votes get eliminated, one at a time, in rank order of lowest votes. Once a voter’s first choice candidate is eliminated, his/her vote goes, instead, to their second choice candidate (if they haven’t been eliminated.) This process continues until you have a candidate with a majority of first and second place votes.
Jerry: That’s pretty confusing. It would also require the Idaho Legislature to make that legal.
Carrie: It has other problems. In the 2010 mayoral race in Oakland, CA, the final winner was successful because she campaigned for and won the most second place votes. It can favor candidates who know how to game the system.
Jerry: Isn’t gaming the system the heart and soul of politics?
Carrie: Very funny. I think a simpler solution might be to modify the run-off rule.
Jerry: What would you change?
Carrie: Lower the run-off threshold. Require a run-off if the top vote-getter has less than 40 percent. In that scenario, only one of I.F’s past run-off races would have happened. At the same time, it provides some protection against fringe candidates who make outrageous promises to attract votes.
Jerry: Didn’t somebody once observe: “The only people truly bound by campaign promises are the voters who believe them?”