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Modesto's runoff system needs a change, panel says

A committee studying Modesto elections says the timing of runoffs is flawed and has come up with two options for city leaders:

Get rid of the runoffs for City Council and mayoral elections.

Or eliminate the runoffs for City Council and move the mayoral runoff to February.

Mayor Jim Ridenour appointed the committee last year to evaluate the city's runoff system and determine if it should be kept. Two recent runoff elections were characterized by embarrassing errors and the city has been searching for a way to repair the system.

Since the 1980s, the city has held runoff elections between the top two vote-getters on the second Tuesday in December if no candidate captures a majority vote in the November election.

The short timeline appears to lead to mistakes, and many people are amazed more foul-ups haven't occurred.

In 2001, a runoff election was canceled when 10,000 ballots didn't go out in time.

A 2005 election was thrown into chaos because the city clerk too quickly declared that Kristin Olsen had just under 50 percent of the vote in her bid to unseat City Council incumbent Denny Jackman. A later review showed that Olsen had a majority. The city had to sue itself to block the runoff.

A 2007 report from the city's Charter Review Committee said the runoff system was broken because of the time constraints.

The county registrar of voters has 28 days to certify the November vote and officially declare the winners. Vote-by-mail ballots are usually sent 29 days before the runoff, giving the city clerk little time to select the runoff candidates.

Options to get a hearing

The mayor-appointed committee will hold a public hearing on the two options Tuesday and is scheduled to make its final recommendations June 21.

The City Council could consider in July whether to put the changes before voters Nov. 2. Any changes would take effect for the 2011 elections.

According to the committee's draft report, the city embraced runoff elections because races with multiple candidates often resulted in people getting elected by small pluralities. Runoff elections reinforce the principle of majority rule.

Ridenour said Friday he doesn't think a runoff is necessary in council races now that the city has gone to district elections.

"I think you need a runoff for the mayor for the simple fact it is a citywide election," Ridenour said. "I am for pushing it to February because we've had so many mistakes."

Councilman Brad Hawn said mayoral races attract a lot of attention, so the mayor should be elected by majority. But he expressed concern that the runoff system raises the campaign costs for people running in council district elections.

"The thing you have to balance is how much work it is and how much money has to be raised," Hawn said. "It could discourage people from running if you know you may have a runoff."

'Instant runoff'

Lawrence Giventer, a political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus, said a process called "instant runoffs" would eliminate the cost and hassle of holding traditional runoffs.

In an instant runoff, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. A ballot tabulation instantly identifies a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote. The system would require a redesigned ballot and sophisticated vote-counting software.

If the city changes its charter, Giventer would prefer to see runoffs in the council district elections, which are designed to provide better representation for geographic areas of Modesto.

"That neighborhood needs to have confidence that the person representing them is the person the majority elected to the council," Giventer said.

The committee considered moving local elections to even years to align with gubernatorial and presidential races, which some say would improve voter turnout.

The committee rejected the idea, partly because it would require extending current council member terms by a year, and that might not sit well with residents, committee chairman Paul Baxter said. Some committee members felt that city elections would be overlooked in the flurry of national, state and county races, he added.

According to the committee's draft report, mayoral runoff elections, combined with any council district runoffs, cost up to $290,000 in county election fees. Council district runoffs cost the city from $47,000 to $170,000 depending on how many are needed.

The Run-Off Election Ad Hoc Committee will hold the public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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