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Local St. Louis Elections Finally Go Non-Partisan!

November 5, 2020 Featured No Comments

I’ve lived in St. Louis over three decades now and one constant in Spring elections has been races are decided in the March Democratic primary, not the April general election. I’ve spoken out against partisan plurality voting for years now.

The last link above mentioned the effort to collect signatures to get Approval Voting on the ballot — that became Prop D that voters approved yesterday.

Proposition D makes three changes to the voting process for St. Louis city elections.

First, it creates a nonpartisan primary. Second, voters have the ability to approve (or disapprove) of every candidate on the ballot. Finally, the two candidates with the most votes in the primary advance to the general election.

Proposition D was endorsed by Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones, state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, and Rev. Darryl Gray.  (St. Louis American)

At this point I think it would be helpful to explain a few of the many types of voting systems.

Vintage photo of the former offices of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. From my collection

Plurality voting system is what St. Louis has always had:

Plurality system, electoral process in which the candidate who polls more votes than any other candidate is elected. It is distinguished from the majority system, in which, to win, a candidate must receive more votes than all other candidates combined. Election by a plurality is the most common method of selecting candidates for public office. (Britannica

This is the voting system most of our elections in the U.S. use. With two candidates the winner is very clear, unless tied. With three or more candidates the winner doesn’t necessarily have a majority of votes. Say you’ve got a 3-way race and 1,000 voters. Candidate A gets 275 votes, B gets 375 votes, and C gets 350 votes. Nobody has a majority of 501 or more votes. Under our plurality system Candidate B would be the winner by receiving more votes than A or C — even though B didn’t get a majority.

Plurality voting is often manipulated with the addition of one or more spoiler candidates to dilute the opposition to the establishment’s preferred candidate.  The spoiler(s) ensures the well-funded candidate backed by the establishment receives more votes than the candidate in second place, even if just one more vote.

Approval voting that won yesterday takes a different approach.

Approval Voting is a single-winner voting method in where a voter can approve of any number of candidates. The candidate that gets the most approval votes wins office. This would help eliminate some of the disadvantages third party candidates have. They no longer would be splitting the vote and voters will be more likely to throw their support behind someone they don’t think it will be wasted on. (Follow my vote) See video.

Let’s use our same example from above to explain how this will work in St. Louis. So we have a 3-way race and 1,000 voters. A third vote for all three candidates (999 votes), a third votes for two candidates (666 votes), and the rest vote for one candidate (334 votes). This example means there are 1,999 total votes among our three candidates. Candidate A gets 500 votes, B gets 750, and C gets 699 — a very close second. In our new system Candidate A would be eliminated and candidates B & C would face each other in a runoff. The winner of the runoff might be B, might be C. We do know the final winner will have a majority of votes as it is a 2-way race.

As former alderman Antonio French recently pointed out, Approval Voting is also subject to manipulation. Even non-manipulative voters have to decide if they vote for one or more candidates.

Approval voting forces voters to face an initial voting tactical decision as to whether to vote for (or approve) of their second-choice candidate or not. The voter may want to retain expression of preference of their favorite candidate over their second choice. But that does not allow the same voter to express preference of their second choice over any other. One simple situation in which Approval strategy is important is if there is a close election between two similar candidates A and B and one distinct one Z, in which Z has 49% support. If all of Z’s supporters approve just him, in hopes of him getting just enough to win, then supporters of A are faced with a tactical choice of whether to approve A and B (getting one of their preferred choices but having no say in which) or approving just A (possibly helping choose her over B, but risking throwing the election to Z). B’s supporters face the same dilemma. (Wikipedia)

The voting system that I’ve been promoting for years is Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).

A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. (Ballotpedia)

RCV is hardly new.

The first U.S. city to adopt at-large ranked choice voting for its city council was Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. During the first half of the 20th century, ranked choice voting spread rapidly as part of the progressive movement. At its peak, some two-dozen cities adopted it, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boulder, Sacramento, and even New York City. New York City continued to use ranked choice voting for its school board until 2002 when those school boards were abolished.

As the progressive era transitioned into a period characterized by racial tensions and fear of communism, at-large ranked choice voting became a victim of its own success. In Cincinnati, ranked choice voting enabled the election of two African American city council members in the 1950’s. In 1951, African American attorney Theodore M. Berry won with the highest percent of the vote, which ordinarily would result in him becoming mayor. Instead, the city council chose one of the white councilmen to become mayor. Finally, Cincinnati repealed ranked choice voting in 1957 in the fifth Republican-led repeal attempt. Following civil unrest stemming from racial tensions in the 1960’s, the Kerner Commission cited the repeal of ranked choice voting and its effect on African American representation as one cause of the city’s violence.

Similarly, in New York City, ranked choice voting cut off the stranglehold previously held by the Democratic Party in the city. In the last election before adoption of choice voting, Democrats won 99.5% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. Under ranked choice voting in 1941, Democrats won 65.5% of the seats with 64% of the vote, a much fairer result. However, ranked choice voting enabled representation of minor parties, including members of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, the Democratic Party took advantage of fears of communism to make a successful push for repeal of ranked choice voting. That repeal successfully prevented the election of communists to the city council, along with members of all other minor parties, but it also brought back an era of unrepresentative elections to New York City. (FairVote)

I suspect the group that got Prop D onto our ballot went with Approval Voting rather than RCV because our existing voting equipment can be used. I don’t think our paper ballots or machines could do RCV. This is just an assumption on my part.

Maine voters used RCV in Tuesday’s election, but Massachusetts voters rejected a measure to switch to RCV.  Next Spring we’ll get to try out our new approval+runoff system as the mayoral race already has at least three candidates. I’m just thrilled the election will be non-partisan.

It’s not clear to me if the ward Democratic committee will have any influence when an alderman resigns from office. Currently the Democratic central committee (committee men & women from all wards) select who will be the Democratic nominee, usually that ward’s committeeman or committeewoman.  Others could run, but voters almost always pick the Democrat.

Also note this doesn’t apply to the eight (8) “county” offices: Circuit Attorney, Circuit Clerk, Collector of Revenue, License Collector, Public Administrator, Recorder of Deeds, Sheriff, and Treasurer.

It’s a new era in St. Louis.

— Steve Patterson


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