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Idaho Falls considers getting rid of council runoff elections

Idaho Falls

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IDAHO FALLS — The Idaho Falls City Council is considering making runoff elections a thing of the past — at least for City Council members.

During a work session Monday, City Councilwoman Michelle Ziel-Dingman proposed an ordinance to end the practice due to increasing costs to the city, and data that suggests runoffs are not particularly useful in choosing candidates for office.

A runoff election occurs when all candidates running for a specific race fail to achieve a 50 percent majority. The top two candidates then compete again in a second election 30 days later to decide the ultimate outcome. Eight cities, including Idaho Falls, Blackfoot and Pocatello, use runoff elections in their mayoral races.

But Idaho Falls is the only city in the Gem State to use runoffs in City Council elections, according to an email from Association of Idaho Cities Policy Analyst Justin Ruen to Mayor Rebecca Casper.

The decision on the matter probably won’t be made immediately. Originally, the new ordinance was scheduled to be voted on Thursday night. On Thursday morning, however, Ziel-Dingman told she would motion for the issue to be tabled so the council could do further research on the impacts of not having council runoff elections.

How the current law came to be

After receiving pressure from a local advocacy group, the Idaho Falls City Council placed a runoff question on the ballot for voters in November 2005.

Voters endorsed runoff elections with 7,359 people (68 percent) voting for the measure, compared to 3,393 (32 percent), who voted against it, according to the Bonneville County Election Office.

The City Council has discussed repealing the ordinance several times over the years, but so far it has remained on the books.


The case against the current law

The biggest issue for Ziel-Dingman, and several other City Council members, is cost and effectiveness.

Since the original ordinance was passed, only two election cycles have resulted in runoffs. In 2013, three council seats went to runoff elections. Those races cost the city at least $11,000 for Bonneville County to run the election, although the total cost is still being researched, Ziel-Dingman said.

In 2017, another runoff was held in the mayor’s race between Mayor Rebecca Casper and former City Councilwoman Barbara Ehart. That runoff cost the city more than $43,000, due to higher staffing costs, Ziel-Dingman said.

“We as council members have a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and I can’t see how this is being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, Ziel-Dingman said.

Another concern is whether runoffs impact the outcome of elections. Historically, it doesn’t appear to be the case. In Idaho Falls, every candidate who has won the most votes in a general election has also won the runoff.

“Right now runoff City Council elections do not change the outcome. The data is clear. It has never changed an outcome since we elected this law,” Ziel-Dingman said.

The same is true statewide. In his letter to Casper, Ruan said in the past 17 years, only one runoff has changed the result of a race in Idaho. That was the 2007 mayoral race in Eagle. Otherwise, the winners remained the same.

Additionally, the number of people that participate in runoffs decreases significantly when compared with a general elections. In 2013, the number of voters dropped by 33 percent compared to the general election, and in 2017 the number of voters dropped by 25 percent.

A part of the lower numbers is a decline in absentee votes. The state mandates that if a runoff is held, it must take place 30 days after a general election; however, that frequently isn’t enough time to gather votes from afar.

“Thirty days is not enough time for our members of the military, those serving (church) missions or students who are attending college elsewhere. … It does not give those people enough time to exercise their right to vote,” Ziel-Dingman said.

The case for the current law

On the other hand, some say getting rid of runoffs could lead to the election manipulation — that is, political or advocacy groups could field multiple candidates in a general election for the sole purpose of splitting the vote to ensure a single candidate continues to get elected.

Former City Council candidate Evan Bastow ran in 2013 for a seat that was ultimately decided in a runoff election between two other candidates. He believes candidates should get the majority of the vote to get elected.

“(A race with many candidates) splits up the vote enough that you could have a person win an election with only a third of the vote,” he said. “It makes it so someone can manipulate the outcome.”

Some council members are concerned about the fact that runoff elections were voted into law by a wide margin.

Councilman John Radford said he agrees with Ziel-Dingman regarding the expense and effectiveness of runoff elections — but it was also the will of many Idaho Falls voters.

“When I found out it was a referendum and people voted on this, and I saw the numbers of people that had voted for it — that gave me pause,” Radford said. “I wouldn’t want the Legislature to go back and repeal the Medicaid expansion after we all voted for it.”

RELATED: Idaho Freedom Foundation asks Supreme Court to block Medicaid expansion

Radford said it’s a good idea to take some time to think on this proposed ordinance and talk to voters. He said perhaps it should be put to another vote.

“Generally when I look at this situation, it seems clear to me we haven’t gained much from a runoff,” he said. “But if voters wanted it, then we need to listen to voters when they speak.”