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Turnout In Tuesday’s Primary Varied Widely

March 5, 2015 Board of Aldermen, Featured, Politics/Policy 6 Comments

ivotedLess than 10% of the city’s 181,967 registered voters actually voted in Tuesday’s partisan primary, but to get the bigger picture we need to delve deeper into the numbers. A total of  17,291 ballots were cast among the three parties selecting their candidates for the general election next month. As expected, the overwhelming majority selected a Democratic ballot:

  • Democrat: 16,520  — 96%
  • Republican: 651 — 4%
  • Green: 120 — 1%

The purpose of holding a partisan primary is so each party can select their candidate to compete in the general election, yet in St. Louis the Democratic primary is largely the entire election — win the Democratic primary and you’re basically the winner of the seat — the general is just a formality. Why do we continue to do this?

We’ll have three people running in the same ward — a Green, a Republican, and a Democrat. Each runs unopposed in the March primary only to face each other in the April general. We need to eliminate the March primary and just have a nonpartisan primary in April. It’ll save money, voters only need to go to the polls once, and each candidate will need to present themselves to voters to get elected.

In addition to eliminating the unnecessary primary, we need Ranked Choice/Instant Run-Off Voting:

 Ranked choice voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first choice support with the ability to earn second and third choice support. RCV is an “instant runoff” when electing one candidate and is a form of fair representation voting when used in multi-winner elections.

More on this later, back to the numbers from Tuesday’s election. Ok, so we know 9.5% of registered voters bothered to vote. Apathy, right? Wrong!

Aldermen were elected in 17 of 28 wards, those of us in the other 11 wards knew the only race for us to vote on was President of the Board of Aldermen — Lewis Reed would get the Democratic nomination over Jimmie Matthews, the Green & Republican candidates were challenged for their party nomination. Six of the 17 wards had unchallenged incumbents — no reason to vote. Only 11 of the city’s 28 wards had challengers. Apathy wasn’t responsible for the dismal turnout — it was our system that was set up when our population was growing and the two main parties fielded viable candidates in every race

  • In the six unchallenged wards the turnout ranged from a low of 4.5% (13th) to a high of 7.4% (6th) — an average of 6%
  • In the eleven contested wards the turnout ranged from a low of 8.7% (22nd) to 21.9% (8th) — an average of 15%

Clearly a contested election increases voter turnout!

The number of votes in a ward election is also telling:

  • The low was the uncontested 14th ward — only 242 of the 297 who voted selected the unchallenged incumbent — 55 voters (18.5%) knew their vote wouldn’t matter.
  • The high was the hotly contested 8th ward — 1,587 voted in the race — only 6 voters went to the polls but didn’t vote in the race for alderman.The winner, incumbent Stephen Conway, received 843 votes in the 2-way race — that’s more votes than in 9 .

The ranked voting mentioned above is important when you have three or more candidates.

  • In the 2nd ward none of the four candidates received more than 50% of the vote — only 5 votes separated the top two. Ranked voting may have selected a different winner.
  • In the 3-way race in the 7th ward Jack Coatar received over 50% of the votes — ranked voting wouldn’t have mattered because he received a plurality.
  • The 20th ward also had a 3-way race — Cara Spencer defeating 20-year incumbent Craig Schmid with 48% — not a plurality.
  • The only other 3-way race was the 22nd where incumbent Boyd received 77%!

When I went to bed Tuesday night the early returns had Ogilvie & Bauer tied 50/50.  In the end incumbent Ogilvie received 74.5% to win a second term.

In a related note here are the results of the Sunday Poll:

Q: Which of the following best describes your political views?

  1. Mostly liberal 18 [33.33%]
  2. Consistently liberal 16 [29.63%]
  3. Mixed 13 [24.07%]
  4. Mostly conservative 4 [7.41%]
  5. Consistently conservative 3 [5.56%]

Not really a surprise that self-described liberals made up nearly 63% of the responses, conservatives just 13%, with the balance (24%) in the middle.

Those with down-the-line conservative and liberal views do share some common ground; they are much more likely than others to closely follow government and political news. This carries over to their discussions of politics and government. Nearly four-in-ten consistent conservatives (39%) and 30% of consistent liberals tend to drive political discussions – that is, they talk about politics often, say others tend to turn to them for information rather than the reverse, and describe themselves as leaders rather than listeners in these kinds of conversations. Among those with mixed ideological views, just 12% play a similar role. (Pew: Political Polarization & Media Habits)

I’d like to see St. Louis eliminate the unnecessary primary and go to ranked choice voting at the same time we reduce the number of aldermen from 28 to 14 — after the results of the 2020 census are known in 2021. You can download my spreadsheet here (xlsx) and the election results here.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    You’ve defined the problem, well, and you’ve presented a good solution, that I support. Now, how do we go from talk to action? There is no real cost associated with the change (if anything, it should cost less, not more), and it really does little to put either incumbents or Democrats (the ones currently in control of things) at greater risk of losing, so why not?! Because that’s the way we’ve always done things? Because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Inertia in government is a tough, tough thing to overcome . . .

    • There would indeed be costs to implement but also savings. To do ranked voting we’d need to rethink how we create & tally paper ballots; the electronic machines would need new software or replacement.

      The goal would be to increase participation as voters & candidates because these are areas where our current system is broken — they do need fixing.

      The first step is discussing the problem and solutions.

  2. KevinB says:

    I have an (unproved) theory about the quality of a neighborhood/ward and the turnout for its municipal elections. In short, the higher the turnout, the better the area. The sub-theory of this is that an engaged citizenry demands better quality of life and, in turn, a larger slate of quality candidates rises to supply it.

    In wards with low voter turnout (and yes, “low” is relative to the already abysmally low numbers citywide) and no challengers, it speaks to a general malaise and acceptance of mediocrity by its residents. The incumbent likely even counts on this, as an incredibly small contingent of supporters all but ensures his/her seat in the unlikely event a challenger files.

    It’s an interesting hypothetical. Say, for instance, I’m moving to the City and want to be an alderman. I can move into a low turnout ward so I need only build a minuscule coalition of voters to win. But the ward I live in will likely be in bad shape and the community complacent. Or I can move to a “high” turnout ward with a higher barrier to entry and a larger/better slate of candidates. So securing the position is harder, but if you win, you get a more active, engaged citizenry and an area with a better quality of life.

    In my dream world, right now a clandestine group of smart, progressive, city-focused candidates is systematically moving into each ward with the intention of wresting them away from those who feed off the malaise of each. Of course, it all goes to pot once we drop down to 14 wards in 2020…

    • guest says:

      You could draw the same conclusion if you sorted voting patterns based on level of household income.

  3. KevinB says:

    When looking at ranked voting, I always think of MLB’s 2009 Cy Young voting (this is, after all, St. Louis!). In that selection, Baseball Writers of America were asked to give a 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th rank to eligible/deserving pitchers. 1st Place votes are valued at 5 points, 2nd gets 3, and 3rd gets 1. Here’s how it shook out:

    Adam Wainwright (STL): Twelve (12) 1st ; Five (5) 2nd ; Fifteen (15) 3rd | Total points: 90
    Tim Lincecum (SF): Eleven (11) 1st ; Twelve (12) 2nd ; Nine (9) 3rd | Total: 100
    Chris Carpenter (STL): Nine (9) 1st ; Fourteen (14) 2nd ; Seven (7) 3rd | Total: 94

    Quick hit: Two BWA voters did NOT include Carpenter on their ballots at all.

    So Lincecum won despite not earning the most 1st place votes, 2nd place votes or 3rd place votes — he was just consistently second. And Carpenter, who received the least 1st’s/3rd’s and the most 2nd’s of the three (and wasn’t even included by two writers), actually placed 2nd. Confounding it is the weighted 5-3-1 points approach. Now the weighted approach is likely the correct one, but if, say, you run a 3-2-1, then Wainwright takes it by a point.

    Was Lincecum the best pitcher that year? Was Carpenter better than Wainwright? By some metrics, in both cases…no (but really, how often does anybody cast votes based on statistical analysis). Did the two STL pitchers siphon votes from each other? Probably. Might some BWA voters, favoring Lincecum, under-ranked Wainwright to ensure their guy won? I can see it. But basically, Lincecum was “good enough” in BWA voters opinions to place second which, in this instance, was good enough for first.

    How this relates to municipal elections, I don’t know, but I inevitably go back to it when the topic of ranked choice voting is presented. It makes me giddy thinking of the potential candidate/supporter backlash if this outcome presented itself in a ward election. 🙂

    • Blake Schneider says:

      This is the beauty of ranked choice voting Kevin–unlike point systems, ranking other candidates CANNOT hurt your 1st choice candidate. Your vote will only count for someone else if your 1st ranking is eliminated, and then your vote goes to your 2nd ranked candidate. In your example, voters who under-ranked Wainwright would not have been able to disproportionately hurt his chances by doing so. Carpenter would have been eliminated, and those voters second choices would have been distributed among Lincecum and Wainwright, building a consensus. The people who voted for Lincecum wouldn’t be able to further impact the outcome by ranking Wainwright lower, because their vote can only count for one person at a time.


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