If recent history is any indication, the Los Angeles District 4 school board seat may still be up for grabs in the May runoff, despite incumbent Steve Zimmer earning a sizable plurality on March 7.
Zimmer, with nearly 47 percent of the vote, fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, leaving the door open for second-place-finisher Nick Melvoin.
Melvoin, a former teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, earned 33 percent of the vote. His election would add to the board of education’s more charter-friendly contingent. He said his campaign should benefit from the additional time voters will have to learn about his candidacy.
“People who show up will be more well-versed in the race since it’s the only one on the ballot,” he said.
Melvoin also said his campaign will prioritize “talking to people at their doors” in the lead up to the May runoff. Mailers and other media from organizations against his campaign have created misconceptions that he’s a Trump supporter and an advocate of for-profit charter schools, he said, as opposed to his stance of considering more nonprofit charters to increase choice.
Allison Holdorff Polhill, who finished third with 14 percent of the vote, endorsed Melvoin in a mass email sent on March 8. Her vote total combined with Melvoin’s equals 193 more votes than Zimmer’s 45,088. Voter turnout in the runoff could be the biggest and most unpredictable variable that decides the race.
“Voter turnout could be low and that could end up being a factor,” said Zimmer, school board president. “One of the important things we hope to do is to invest significantly in voter engagement, and do everything we can to make sure voters in Board District 4 understand the stakes in this election,” alluding to the issue of charter schools.
Zimmer has advocated for more district oversight over the city’s charter schools than many charter school proponents would prefer.
“Every vote really matters. We want to spread that word,” he said.
A significant decrease in voter turnout factored into a July 2013 runoff victory for City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, 6th District, after she finished second in the initial May election by almost 20 points.
Conversely, a rare increase in voter turnout for a 2015 runoff election helped secure the reelection of Richard A. Vladovic to the School Board District 7 seat.
In a race that perhaps most closely resembles the District 4 runoff, Scott Mark Schmerelson defeated incumbent Tamar Galatzan in a 2015 race for the School Board District 3 seat. Schmerelson finished second in the primary by 7,559 votes, but prevailed in the runoff with approximately 1,100 fewer ballots cast.
Those numbers are part of a larger, nationwide pattern.
According to FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, the “democratic legitimacy” of certain U.S. elections decided by runoffs has suffered due to poor turnout.
“Decreased turnout dilutes the main benefit of a runoff: improving representation by allowing voters in primaries to select a candidate with broad popular support,” according to a December 2016 report released by the group. “In the United States, primary runoff turnout rates often plunge so low that the democratic legitimacy of the election is cast into doubt.”
The report analyzed 190 primary runoffs in U.S. House and Senate elections from 1994 to 2016. The study said primary elections with gaps of 30 days or more until the runoff had a 41 percent median decline in turnout, compared to 15 percent for ones with a 20-day-or-less gap. Some states have adopted longer periods of time between elections to better accommodate overseas voters, including military, but diminished overall turnout has been an unintended consequence.
With the exception of Martinez’s runoff victory in CD6, recent municipal elections in Los Angeles have shown more modest declines – in addition to occasional increases – in voter turnout for runoff elections.
A runoff will also decide the District 6 race for school board between Kelly Gonez and Imelda Padilla. The incumbent, Monica Ratliff, chose to run for the vacant City Council District 7 seat. She finished third behind Monica Rodriguez and Karo Torossian; they will oppose each other in the May runoff.
The District 4 school board race has also been notable for the money it has drawn. Melvoin’s $424,685 in campaign contributions reported through March 1 was the most among school board candidates in all three races. It was also a greater total than the campaign contributions generated by any single candidate in the City Council District 1, 3, 7, 13 and 15 races.
District 4 also drew approximately $4 million of independent expenditures, which is money given either in support of or opposition to a candidate or ballot measure by an organization that is not affiliated with any campaign. Most of it was directed at Zimmer (approximately $1.2 million by groups in support of his campaign and $1.6 million by those opposed).
The next filing of campaign contributions is April 6. As of March 22, the only money on file in the District 4 race since the primary election is nearly $17,000 in independent expenditures supporting phone banking and canvassing for Melvoin.
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