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Boise gets rid of the runoff

Boise voters will get an answer quicker, if murkier, from city council elections and, if the trend continues, future mayoral elections too. Last week, the Boise City Council quietly voted to get rid of run-off elections that forced the top two vote-getters in a crowded race to take another crack at each other to see who really won. The push to get rid of extra innings came from Councilor David Eberle, who said runoffs are a waste of time and money.

"It's got great rhetoric, it's just bad policy," Eberle said. Eberle knows these special elections better than anyone in Boise; the city's only runoff election ever held was between him and Paula Forney, back in 2003. In a five-way race in the general election, Eberle and Forney came out with 35 percent of the vote each; Eberle squeezed past Forney by roughly half a percentage point. In the runoff election held later, Eberle walked away with 73 percent of the vote. The extra election, which cost Boise $70,000 to hold, is likely to be the last.

That disappoints new City Councilor Jim Tibbs, who was the only "no" vote against eliminating run-offs.

"I think it's great for candidates, but it's bad for the citizens," Tibbs said of eliminating the run-offs.

He gets backup from Boise State political science professor John Freemuth, who said eliminating runoffs, whether they ultimately cost more or not, is bad for city politics.

"That's the wrong way to go," Freemuth said. "What this does is reward a minority candidate who might be a fringe candidate, but who can turn out their people in an election." Winning a runoff and getting more than 50 percent of the vote, Freemuth argued, is much better than being the top of the anthill with just 25 percent or more out of a slew of candidates. That's just the sort of scenario that played out in the tiny turnout for the Republican state primary in Idaho, when Bill Sali emerged with 25 percent of the votes to become his party's nominee for Congress.

Eberle's next target: the mayor's race, many months away. He hopes the city will embrace an "instant runoff" system, wherein voters choose their two top candidates in a ranked ballot. If the voters' first choice wins a plurality, the election ends there. Boise would be the first city in Idaho to have such elections, according to Boise City Clerk Annette Mooney. Currently, seven cities still have runoff election provisions; like Eberle's 2003 race, the runoffs, Mooney said, have tended to validate the earlier, tighter votes.

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