Mark Isler is a longtime radio and television talk show host, an outspoken conservative and a candidate for Seat Number 1 on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees in the March 3 election. He hasn’t had much success in previous runs for office, being a Republican in heavily liberal and Democratic districts and in solid blue California.
He lost his run for the Los Angeles Unified School District board in 1987. He lost for the Community College District Board of Trustees in 1989. He came in last in the race for state superintendent of public instruction in 1990. He lost again for the Community College Board in 1991. He lost for the Los Angeles City Council in 1997. He lost again for state superintendent in 1998, and again for the Community College Board in 1999 and 2003, and for the Assembly in 2004.
And this time out, with the L.A. electorate even more liberal and less Republican than ever – well, it turns out that the conservative Isler may have a pretty decent shot at victory.
He’s hasn’t changed his politics, and L.A. voters, except for moving further to the left, haven’t changed theirs. Isler has made no compromises and undertaken no hard marketing to make himself more appealing to voters. And he has three opponents, each with labor backing and each with some experience in the community college system. If this were one of his previous elections, Isler would be unlikely to even land a spot in the runoff.
But that’s the thing. There are no more runoffs in Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees elections. The incumbent board eliminated them in several years ago. And “no runoffs” is another way of saying “no majority vote is required.”
So in a four-way race, a candidate could win the office outright with, say, 25.1% of the vote. The vast majority of voters in the district might want a liberal, labor-oriented candidate, then split their vote among the three of them and find that they have inadvertently elected the one candidate who least represents their point of view.
Of course, it might be one of the other candidates who wins office with support only a small fraction of voters; the scenario works the same whether it’s Isler, Andra Hoffman, Maria “Sokie” Quintero or Francesca Vega. But Hoffman, Quintero and Vega are the candidates most likely to be fighting for, and dividing up, the same votes.
How did we get to this state of affairs?
Officially it began with a 2012 Assembly bill by former Los Angeles Community College District trustee Warren Furutani, signed into law by former Los Angeles Community College District trustee Jerry Brown. The bill allowed the current L.A. trustees to eliminate runoffs, and they exercised that option last year. the change takes effect now, with the coming election.
But the impetus may well have come several years before that, in the March 2007 race in which four candidates, including incumbent Georgia Mercer, split the vote. Mercer fell just short of the 50%-plus-one she needed to win outright and ended up in a May runoff with conservative challenger Roy Burns – and as it happens, there wasn’t much else on the ballot. So almost no one came out to vote. Turnout was 4.7% of eligible voters, according to the New America Foundation (the L.A. city clerk crunched the numbers differently and came with slightly more than 6%. But still – pretty low). The cost to the district came out to about $40 per vote cast. Mercer, who won, had to raise and spend campaign money for the second round while her board colleagues who won their 50%-plus-one in the primary were spared.
Two years later, incumbent Angela Reddock came in first but was still pushed into a runoff by newcomer Tina Park. If there had been non runoff, Reddock would have been reelected. But there was a runoff, and Park defeated Reddock.
So the 2012 change appeared on its face to be an incumbent-protection plan to help people like Reddock keep their seats. Los Angeles Community College Board trustees are most often liberal Democrats, and many of their unsuccessful challengers are more conservative.
In Isler’s race, though, there is no incumbent, and the odd system could work the other way.
Whoever the system is geared to help or hinder, it’s a bad setup. It undermines majority power without allocating minority rights in any kind of rational way.
Supporters argue that other community college districts already do without runoffs. But that doesn’t make the system wise or fair.
Some opponents of California’s Top Two primary system make the same complaints. They argue that, for example, in an Assembly race with three Democrats and one Republican, the Democrats could split the vote among them and voters would inadvertently elect the Republican even though they didn’t mean to. But I don’t buy it. In Top Two, there is still a runoff. A majority of people who vote will still decide among two candidates. But not in community college races.
One possible reform that seems to have ended up on the permanent back burner is so-called instant runoff voting or its near-identical cousin, ranked-choice voting, in which voters pick their second-favorite candidate at the same time they pick their first. There is still a runoff, of sorts, but it happens simultaneously with the principal election and the impact of a vote split up among similar candidates is lessened.
The Times editorial board last year called for the Community College District elections to move from their current at-large system to geographic districts.
But I wonder if voters are already making a statement of preference with a 4.7% turnout, that statement being: Come to us with the important stuff, and stop bothering us with elections for offices that we don't know or care anything about.
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