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Should runoff elections be eliminated?

Modesto City Hall couldn't fix flaws with runoff elections at the ballot box six years ago.

Now an effort is under way to get rid of runoff races.

The City Council on Tuesday is set to decide whether to ask voters if Modesto should scrap runoff elections because the process is prone to costly errors.

In 2001, the city postponed a runoff when ballots failed to reach 10,000 residents.

Four years later, the city sued itself to invalidate a council runoff between then-challenger Kristin Olsen and incumbent Denny Jackman when a review of the initial tally showed Olsen had won more than 50 percent of the votes on the first try.

Modesto just doesn't have enough time to count the votes from a November general election and set up a December runoff, as required by the city charter, City Clerk Stephanie Lopez said.

"It's just that the timing is critical," she said.

Tuesday's choice for the council stems from Modesto's 2008 Charter Review Committee, which identified the runoff system as "broken" because it requires the city clerk to choose runoff candidates so quickly.

Another political change sparked by the same committee could steal the momentum of council members who were inclined to do away with runoffs.

Modesto's switch this year from citywide council races to district elections will result in successful candidates needing a much smaller number of voters to win. The Charter Review Committee supported that change, too.

"I am concerned about somebody winning in a district with very few votes," said George Petrulakis, the attorney who led the Charter Review Committee's work.

Look no further than the developing race to represent District 4 this fall. That district includes the La Loma, airport and Wycliffe neighborhoods.

Four candidates have signaled their intent to run.

The district has 15,633 voters. Slice that by two-thirds because turnout for City Council races sometimes hovers about 33 percent and the representative from the district could win office with a couple of thousand votes.

"If you have four or five people, somebody can go in with a little more than a quarter of the vote," Councilman Dave Lopez said.

Runoffs "serve a purpose. I know it's tough economic times, but that's one area I don't think we can skimp -- making sure the people's choice goes into office."

Modesto leaders have tried to give the clerk more time to prepare a runoff. Measure I in 2003 would have designated March instead of December as the month for council and mayoral runoffs. That measure failed.

"That's not an option" for the council on Tuesday, Stephanie Lopez said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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