Banning write-in candidates in runoffs unwise

UPDATE: The measure to ban write-in candidates in runoffs passed, about 55%–45%. Another measure also put on the ballot by the County Supervisors, to “clean up” provisions of the County Charter, passed about 70–30. I will take the relatively close result of the measure on which I published an op ed (copied here on the inside page) as evidence of my vast influence on County voters. My “no” got 15 points more than the other! Alas, it was not enough.

The following ran in the 2 June edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune:

On election day, the county Board of Supervisors is asking voters to approve Proposition B, which would bar write-in candidates from contesting general elections for county offices. The measure is an obvious response to the controversy in 2004-05 in the city of San Diego when Donna Frye’s general election write-in campaign for mayor resulted in a recount, court battles and ultimately Mayor Dick Murphy’s resignation. While no one would hope to see a similar situation in a county election, the board’s proposal sharply restricts voter choice and should be rejected.

County elections, like those of the city, occur in two rounds: First, a nonpartisan primary in June, in which a majority of votes is required; if no candidate obtains a majority, a runoff occurs in the November general election. Proposition B would ensure that the only candidates competing in this runoff were the two candidates with the most votes in the primary.

There are two problems with Proposition B’s proposed change: Time and choice. June to November is a very long time. New issues might arise that were not even addressed when voters whittled the field to two in the primary. This is exactly what happened in 2004 in the city of San Diego, when the scale of the financial crisis became clear only after the primary.

This is where choice comes in. By entering the race as a write-in candidate, Donna Frye gave voters another alternative, and focused the fall campaign on the looming crisis. The controversy that followed the election stemmed not from the mere presence of a write-in candidate, or even from the election of a candidate by less than 50 percent of the votes. Rather, it stemmed from the technicality that Frye’s margin over Murphy included improperly marked ballots.

Banning future “Fryes” is attacking the wrong problem. Given the uphill battle any write-in candidate must face to have a serious shot at winning, an insurgent campaign like Frye’s can flourish only if the ground is fertile – that is, if there is popular demand for another choice on account of information that comes to light only with the passage of time after the primary.

If one is concerned to ensure that the winner of these nonpartisan elections have a majority of the votes – a criterion, by the way, required at no other level in this state, where third party candidates contest general elections – there are better ways than to force a majority by restricting voters’ choices.

The time between voters’ narrowing of the field and then giving their final verdict could be shortened. Many jurisdictions that use two rounds hold them only a month or so apart. That is not an option in San Diego County, because it would require the establishment of a completely new election date. So why not reduce the time between rounds to zero? That is, make the runoff “instant.”

Under an instant runoff, the only election needed is the November general, yet a majority-supported winner is still guaranteed. Voters rank-order their choices – first, second, etc. – among the candidates running. The candidate who is last in first-preference votes is eliminated, and his or her ballots are transferred to those voters’ second choices. This process continues in multiple rounds of counting until a candidate has a majority.

The result is exactly like a runoff, but on one ballot – a far better solution than the Board of Supervisors propose with Proposition B. Rather than four months between the narrowing of the field and a runoff with restricted choice, voters would have a menu of many candidates from which they would produce a majority in one election: Less time, more choice.

6 thoughts on “Banning write-in candidates in runoffs unwise

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

    • That’s interesting. Thanks, Tom!

      (I am, however, appalled to see that I published something in a newspaper 12 years ago that used the term, “nonpartisan primary” for what is not a primary at all. Well, let’s just say that I’ve “grown” in the interim.)

      • Might have posted this here before but I’ve noticed that US reporters often use “the primary” and “the runoff” to describe the two rounds of presidential elections in other countries, eg France, Poland, Chile, etc (from memory).
        Not sure why they don’t just go all the way and say “President Theresa May addressed the British Congress yesterday…”

      • Or President Sánchez addressed the Spanish congress…

        On the other hand, almost everyone translates German and Austrian premiers/ministers-president into governors.

  2. Tom says, “I’ve noticed that US reporters often use “the primary” and “the runoff” to describe the two rounds of presidential elections.” This would not surprise me, although I do not think I recall reading or hearing this particular (mis)usage.

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