Opinion: Village Matters

ann christoph
By Ann Christoph

Georgia has a Point*

This irritating prolonging of the tiresome election process. . .why does Georgia have to have a run-off! 

Just because neither of the leading candidates got more than 50% 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 really 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 losing candidates would vote for if they could choose between or among the leading candidates.

The 2018 Laguna Beach Council election is an especially egregious example. There were 13 candidates for three 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 five candidates garnered a total of 3506 votes. And 57.2% 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% of the votes. 

Iseman followed with 14.5% and Kempf 13.6.%. 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 five candidates for two 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 run-off.

But with many candidates and either 2 or 3 at-large seats, it is difficult to determine what the majority is. Numbers guru John Thomas explains, “In the 2018 election, there were 16,791 registered voters in Laguna, and there were 13,650 ballots cast – 81.29% voter turnout. But adding the votes cast for the 13 candidates for City Council results in a total of 33,031 votes actually cast for the 13 candidates. If all 13,650 who voted used all three of their votes, there would have been 40,950 total votes for council candidates. So, that means 7919 votes were not used as some people voted for only one or two of the 13.” 

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 5th District Supervisor seat. Katrina Foley won but only received 41.76% of the votes—not the required 50+%. So the top 2 vote-getters (Foley and Pat Bates who received 22.18%) faced each other In the general election. In that election Foley still prevailed but with a much narrower margin—51% to Bates’ 49%. 

System works. Now we know how the people who voted for the two losing candidates in the primary chose between the two winners. 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+% 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.

*Warning: Even numbers guy John Thomas thinks this column may be too wonky for some—this is the price readers have to pay for the lighter car story last time. Sorry. Jury still out on the car.

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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