Most of the country was captivated on Tuesday night, June 3, by the apparent nomination for the first time of someone other than a European-American man as a major party presidential candidate. Here in Los Angeles, however, we had a very consequential and quite captivating election of our own taking place on the very same night.
Unfortunately, due to the profound structural flaws in the way America’s antiquated electoral system operates, it ended in a fizzle.
The race was for one of the five seats on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Since more than 10 million souls reside now in Los Angeles County, that means that each supervisor represents some two million constituents. That is more than twice as large as the size of the average congressional district in the United States.
The county supervisors, largely under the radar screen of the public in this age of extreme civic disengagement, grapple every day with crucial if unsexy issues. Like law enforcement. Prisons. Fair elections. Homelessness. Trying to build and expand a workable transit system — to ease, if only a bit, LA’s perpetually gridlocked traffic (but having little success in an era when so many American taxpayer dollars end up in the black budgets of the Pentagon or the deep pockets of defense contractors). And, perhaps most crucially, the LA County board of supervisors tries bravely to improve a woefully insufficient local public health system, in an effort to provide a modicum of care to the millions who cannot successfully navigate America’s hyper-profit health care obstacle course.
In addition, because of the overwhelming power of incumbency in American electoral politics today, Tuesday’s race was the first real contest for a single county supervisorial seat offered to Angelenos since 1992.
No less than nine candidates had filed to run. Nevertheless, most local pundits agreed that it was a two-man race, between State Senator and former LA City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Los Angeles City Councilman and former LA police chief Bernard Parks.
Almost all of my politically savvy friends held strong opinions about the race. Many put in long volunteer hours of blood, tears, toil, and sweat on behalf of one or the other of the candidates. Several ponied up cash donations out of their finite financial reservoirs as well. My wife and I received two or three flyers in our mailbox, every single day, for the last 2 or 3 weeks before the election.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas even showed up knocking on my door on Election Day, two hours before the polls closed, working assiduously to get out every last vote … and caught me watering the garden. I had met him several times before, but never before wearing rainbow-colored flip-flops, Bermuda shorts, and a ridiculous floppy hat. Two million constituents - what are the chances?
At least I was able to tell him that I had already voted.
Several hours later, on election night, in very dramatic fashion, Senator Ridley-Thomas pulled out a solid, hard-fought, five-point victory over Councilman Parks, 45% to 40%.
He gets to run against Mr. Parks in November, all over again.
Because this was a non-partisan race, not a party primary — and the winner failed to secure more than 50% of the vote. Therefore, under LA County rules, the top two candidates have to face off again, in a runoff election this fall.
And the only people less enthused than all my politically active friends about going through the same thing all over again are probably Mr. Ridley-Thomas and Mr. Parks themselves.
The democracy fatigue that so many of us are experiencing this week in Los Angeles could have been remedied with one easy modification to the electoral system — instant runoff voting.
The seven lesser-known long shot candidates all undoubtedly possessed imaginative platforms and fine reasons for running. (I did that once myself — put forth a dazzlingly imaginative platform and ran for a rare open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with no less than a dozen other long shots, against a sitting Los Angeles city councilman, a sitting state senator, and the former state senator who won the seat, Diane Watson.) The 15% of voters who chose one of the seven long shots in this race all presumably had fine reasons for doing so.
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