The Los Angeles City Council is taking a look at an election reform package intended to boost turnout while reducing election costs.

On Wednesday, October 27, the council will choose whether or not to approve charter amendments. They are facing a November 17th the deadline to place the amendments and initiatives on the March 8, 2011 city ballot.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” said Erik Sanjurjo, director of policy for Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar. “It’s time to ask the voters.”

One cornerstone of the reform package is Ranked Choice Voting, a method pioneered in San Francisco in 2004. RCV has voters indicate their first, second, and third choice candidates on the ballot. This is designed to prevent a separate – and expensive – runoff election if no candidate wins a simple majority.

Ranked Choice Voting’s will have its first trial in three cities in Alameda County – Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro – on Nov. 2. See

It looks like it will be a tight vote on whether or not the Los Angeles City Council approves the proposed measures, Sanjurjo said. If passed on October 27th, the measures would then go to city staffers, who would be responsible for drafting the language for the charter amendments. The Council would have to approve that language by November 17.

These reforms, given voter approval next March, could take effect as soon as 2015. There would be some delay as the Los Angeles County Board of Elections introduces new voting systems and equipment, said Sanjurjo. But that equipment would be compatible with RCV.

Several election reform forums were held earlier this year, with participation by good government groups, including California Common Cause, Fair Vote, and the League of Women Voters.

Councilmember Huizar is advocating a variety of reform ideas, Sanjurjo said, including measures to encourage voting-by-mail, which is supported by Los Angeles City Clerk June Lagmay.

The election reform package includes:

  • Neighborhood voting centers – The plan would emphasize voting centers with more comprehensive services, including longer hours, expanded days, and the ability to accept mail-in ballots. It would close some low turnout polling places.
    The centers would be “convenient, accessible, and secure, with trained staff to assist voters,” states the campaign materials of the reform initiative.
    The city clerk estimates savings of $600,000 to $700,000 per election with a move to fewer, more comprehensive voting centers.
  • Matching funds – Charter amendments would remove the $12 million cap on the Matching Funds Program Trust Fund, which was set up by Los Angeles’ voters in 1990. The system increased the importance of small contributors, with corresponding matching donations from the trust fund, said Sanjurjo. But, he added, the system has run up against the cap, which has dampened the enthusiasm of city candidates recently.
  • The package also calls for increasing the maximum penalties for illegal contributions or expenditures.
  • Vote-by-mail – Starting with special elections, the City would mail ballots to all voters, letting them choose when and how to cast ballots. In the 2009 municipal elections, 37 percent of Los Angeles’ registered voters decided to vote-by-mail.
  • Move city elections to November – The idea is to start with special elections in odd-numbered years, said Sanjurjo. This is expected to increase voter participation to the levels of statewide and national elections.
  • Same-day registration – The concept is that a neighborhood-voting center would have trained staff to make same-day registration work. There’s an anticipated savings because election officials would have far fewer provisional ballots to process in the days after the election. Eight states now allow same-day registration and have seen turnout increases of 3 to 6 percent, according to the reform campaign’s materials.
  • Ranked Choice Voting – In RCV, voters may rank their top three candidates. If no candidate achieves a majority, election officials then calculate an instant runoff by eliminating the candidate with the fewest first-place votes and redistributing those citizens’ next-ranked votes to other candidates. Recounts continue until a candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote.

That process is likely to delay the outcome of some hotly contested races until perhaps three days after the Nov. 2 election, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald has said in recent media interviews, citing the experience in San Francisco since 2004.

But it still saves the expense of scheduling runoff elections a month or so after the initial vote, as has been the custom in San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley.

RCV makes for more political strategizing. In Oakland, in a mayoral race with incumbent Ron Dellums not running, there has been a lot of discussion about ranked voting and candidates angling to be second choice on voters’ ballots. See that article here.