Opinion: Georgia has a Point*

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ann christoph
By Ann Christoph

This irritating prolonging of the tiresome election process…why does Georgia have to have a runoff?! 

Just because neither of the leading candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote—why don’t they just say that the candidate who got the most votes wins?

Well, we can see by looking at Laguna Beach Council elections why that is a bad idea and an affront to the idea of “majority rules.” For representative results, It’s important to find out who those voting for lower-ranked candidates would vote for if they could choose between or among the leading candidates.  This is especially important in elections with many candidates running for several seats.

My friend Bob Borthwick simplified the problem with this made-up example. Suppose there were 10 candidates for city council. One of the candidates said we should tear down city hall and build a new one. The other 9 candidates opposed that idea. If voters who also opposed tearing down city hall split their votes among the 9 candidates, the one candidate who wanted to take it down could win—with much less than 50% of the vote. Yet that winning candidate would not represent the will of the voters on that important issue.

The 2018 Laguna Beach Council election is an especially egregious example. There were 13 candidates for 3 seats on the council. 

The top three vote getters were Peter Blake (4881), Toni Iseman (4792), and Sue Kempf (4483).  But the close runners-up were former council members (yes, me) Ann Christoph (4235) and Cheryl Kinsman (4037). Following were Judie Mancuso (2834), incumbent Rob Zur Schmiede (2206)—who had dropped out of the race—and Paul Merritt (2067).  The remaining 5 candidates garnered a total of 3506 votes.  57.2 percent of the votes were for candidates other than the three who were declared the election winners!  

Despite Peter Blake’s claim to having majority support for his policies, he won only 14.8 percent of the votes. 

Iseman followed with 14.5% and Kempf 13.6 percent. Majority is not ruling in an election system like this.

Who would the voters have chosen if there were a run-off election of the top six candidates for three seats? 

All the voters would have the opportunity to vote for candidates who could really win, not throwing away their votes on someone who got as few as 255 votes (write-in candidate Jorg Dubin). 

Just those 255 votes, though ineffective in electing Dubin, could have changed the order of finalist candidates.

In the 2020 election there were only 5 candidates for 2 seats, but still the votes for the candidate with the fewest votes (incumbent Steve Dicterow with 3540 votes) could have had a considerable impact on the final order of candidates. Top vote-getter Bob Whalen (6442) led George Weiss by 777 votes. Weiss bested Ruben Flores by only 131 votes.  Larry Nokes was 518 votes behind Flores. Still only 46% of the votes went to the declared winners, Whalen and Weiss.

What about this year, with seven candidates for three seats? (These are preliminary results—the election is not yet certified.) The top three candidates—Alex Rounaghi (6566), Sue Kempf (6301), and Mark Orgill (4347) garnered a consoling 56.42% of the votes. They were followed by Ruben Flores with 3634, Jerome Pudwill 3486, Blake 3230, and Louis Weil at 2949. Again, redistribution of the votes for Weil could have made a difference in a 6-person runoff.

But with many candidates and either 2 or 3 at-large seats, it is difficult to determine the 50 plus percent number because some voters “bullet vote”—don’t use all of their available votes.  But we can come up with a better approach.

What are possible solutions besides a run-off?  A primary? 

That is what happens in the Orange County Board of Supervisors election. In the primary election, there were four candidates for our Fifth District Supervisor seat. Katrina Foley won the most votes but not the required 50+%.  So she faced the second-place winner Pat Bates in the general election. In this second go-round, Foley still prevailed, but the public is assured that the people who voted for the two losing candidates in the primary had an opportunity to weigh-in and choose between the top vote-getters. Fair–and there’s a clear majority. The downside is the need for two expensive campaigns, exhausting both candidates and the electorate.

Rank Choice Voting, also called Instant Run-off Voting? In this system, voters rank all candidates by order of preference. If a candidate receives 50 plus percent of the votes, they win. In a multi-seat election, the process continues. The candidate with the least number of votes is dropped off the list, and the voters who chose that candidate as their first choice will have their second choice worked into the tabulation. Voters can rank candidates they prefer without worrying that they would split the vote to the disadvantage of their favorite candidate. See more information at fairvote.org.

As we have especially seen in the past four years, Laguna’s history can be changed in important ways by winners of the Council elections.  We should make sure our voting system provides that council members are really elected by a majority of voters.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She’s also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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