Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a peculiarly anti-democratic bill into law, ending the requirement that the Los Angeles Community College District hold runoff elections for the board of trustees. In late June, the board voted 4 to 2, with one abstention, to take advantage of that new freedom during the 2015 election. Board seats often draw large fields of candidates in low-profile elections; many voters have little knowledge about who all the candidates are. Assuring victory for a candidate who draws a small plurality of votes in a single contest, though it will save a few million dollars by making a second round unnecessary, exacerbates the problem and gives incumbents an easier shot at staying in office.
Instead of further diminishing the voters' voice, what the board should be doing is seeking reform of its at-large election system. Candidates for the community college board run for particular seats, but, unlike those running for the Los Angeles City Council or school board, they are elected by all the voters within the vast district. This is a bad model for a couple of reasons: In a district this spread out and this ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, voters in particular neighborhoods or communities often have little attention paid to their needs. And if voters in smaller districts had only one community college race to decide every four years instead of three or four every two years, they wouldn't be as overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar names.
By eliminating runoffs, the L.A. district is doing what most others in the state already do. But that's less of a problem in smaller, more compact districts. In the March 2015 primary for four open seats, voters are likely to face a long list of candidates about whom they know little or nothing. In that situation, they're more likely to vote for those identified as current board members. The victor in a multi-candidate race might eke out, say, 28% of the vote or less — and then, without a runoff, win the election.
A little-noticed provision of the law worsens the situation: The board must decide every two years whether to hold a runoff, rather than setting policy for all future elections. This creates the possibility that a majority of, for example, pro-union members could vote to bring runoffs back during elections when members of the board who are not from their faction are running, reducing their chances of victory, or eliminating runoffs during their own election cycles.