City Council runoffs the right thing, just at the wrong time

Why does Modesto have runoff elections for City Council and mayor? The answer dates to June 1987, when citizens approved a charter amendment calling for runoffs. In 1985, and in a number of elections prior, council members had been elected with far less than a majority.

A particularly tight council race in 1985 was won by Pat McGrath, who received just under 33 percent of the votes. Two others in the eight-person race had 28 percent each.

A chart published in The Bee in 1987 showed 14 elections between 1969 and 1983 in which there had been more than three candidates in a race. In only five of those races did the winning candidate receive a majority of votes.

In 1969, Philip Newton won a council seat by just six votes over the second highest vote getter. Each had just under 37 percent of the votes. In a seven-way council race in 1975, the winner, Susan Siefkin, received 29 percent of the votes.

With that history in mind, Modestans approved runoffs. In a crowded field, voters can find it difficult to distinguish among the candidates. With a runoff, the differences between the two candidates are easier to identify. Also, while majority support in an election isn't a guarantee of success or popularity later on, it also offers a degree of credibility to the winning candidate.

This argument stands, and could be even more critical, as Modesto heads into its first experience with electing council members by geographic district. Three seats will be chosen by district in November.

Tonight, the council will discuss whether to ask voters to eliminate runoffs, not because they're not important but because of the awkward timing. As prescribed in the charter now, the runoff election is in early December, just a little more than a month after the regular election -- sometimes too soon to have the final count and to assure that the right names go on the runoff ballot.

We agree that the turnaround time has created problems, but believe the council should consider moving the date of the runoff rather than eliminating it.

Voters rejected a 2003 charter amendment that would have moved the runoff to March. We opposed that proposal, in part because it meant council campaigns would drag on too long. We would suggest that the runoff could be somewhere between mid January and early February.

We don't know yet how the district elections will work. But it's just as important that the winning candidate have strong support, as evidenced by a majority vote.

The council meets at 5:30 p.m. today in the basement of Tenth Street Place.