OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
My votes for San Luis Obispo City Council just got wasted again. Just like in 2016. Just like before that. Election after election, my votes play no role in electing anyone to a council that then contains nobody sympathetic to my views or demographic. It’s enough to make one say “Why bother voting?” and stay home next time.
Upon examining this undemocratic feature of our so-called democracy, I discovered it’s not just my votes that get wasted. Yours probably do too. In our recent city council election, winners garnered less than half the votes cast. In other words, the majority of San Luis Obispo votes were wasted and played no role in determining who would govern us.
Unfortunately, as a result of vote waste and a sense of powerlessness to affect the outcome, many citizens do give up and disengage out of cynicism about the efficacy of the mere act of voting’s making any difference. Our nation’s abysmal voter registration and voter turnout numbers provide ample evidence of this truth. In our recent city election, more than one-third of eligible residents never registered to vote, and only about half of SLO residents eligible to vote bothered to vote.
Voting need not be this way. Our winner-take-all system, which results in crowing mandate-claiming victors elected by maybe 15 percent of the people they supposedly represent, is not used everywhere. Increasingly, it’s coming to be viewed as undemocratic, unrepresentative, and unfair, and as part of the reason politics has become so polarized. Some got this message long ago. Others are just getting it today.
Growing up in a half million strong Ohio city in the 1950s, we were well-schooled in how our city council got elected, and how voting method affects outcome. You must transplant your mind back to 1950s America to fully comprehend this voting scenario and its impact. The country was still racially segregated, women were generally encouraged to take orders and keep quiet — except around children, my city was so conservative children learned to taunt one another by calling their despised brethren “dirty stinkin’ Democrats,” anything smacking of unions was regarded as communist, and communist was about as high up the political hate chain as you could get.
Yet, election after election something seemingly miraculous happened in this extremely conservative city. The nine-member council wasn’t like our SLO council with five clones of one faction who’ve seized power out of proportion to what they deserve based on city demographics. Our council looked – and behaved — like a cross section of the city’s population. In addition to conservatives, there was always a black member, a union member, a woman, some liberals and some business types.
How did this happen? As a direct result of our balloting system.
In a nutshell, each voter got a ballot, and instead of voting by darkening a bubble next to the preferred candidates, each had to rank candidates, 1 through 9. This engaged voters because knowing that even their 9th choice could be important in electing someone, they had to consider the character and qualifications of all candidates to make a discerned ranking.
The act of ranking also all but eliminated wasted votes because even if your first choice was an early loser, your ballot could still be the crucial ballot to elect your 2nd, 3rd or 8th choice. Thus every voter knew her vote would almost certainly count. By contrast, with our SLO ballot system, we only get to vote our first choices, and any vote for anyone other than a winner is wasted.
Counting ballots was a bit complicated to explain. There would be a formula establishing the number of votes required to win – a number that established numerical legitimacy rather than luck as in our minority-vote-winner SLO system.
The first round of ballot counting distributed #1 votes to candidates. As any candidate achieved excess votes – i.e., more than needed to win –, votes would be proportionally redistributed to #2 choices of candidate #1’s voters. That’s because votes can be wasted not just by being cast for a loser, but also by giving a winner more votes than needed to win.
So, for example, if it took 1,000 votes to win and candidate #1 got 1,100 votes, or a 10 percent surplus, the number #2 choices on #1’s ballots would be allocated at the rate of 10 percent of the total votes for each remaining candidate. It’s really quite simple in practice if a bit hard to explain.
Then the lowest vote getter would be eliminated, and that candidate’s votes redistributed to #2 choices.
Round after round this continued till 9 council members were elected, each with enough votes to demonstrate a plurality choice by voters. No candidate could be elected under this system with the piddly minority number of votes our SLO system allows for victors.
We called this “proportional representation” voting. It was a reform put in place by 1920s Progressives who drove a money-tainted “machine” from city hall.
When I was a kid, votes were counted by hand. Today a computer could do the same in a fraction of the time.
The old-time pro-business political “machine” never liked this method of voting since it guaranteed they’d not be able to stack the council to do their bidding, but would have to make an appeal to council members from a cross-section of the population. They started agitating for an end to proportional representation in the 1940s, claiming it was too complicated and a “9X” winner-take-all system, like we have in SLO, was “better.” Election after election voters saw through this ruse, and rebuffed the effort. Finally it barely passed, and proportional representation went away.
And the council’s new makeup? It looked like a Chamber of Commerce board of directors meeting, no longer like a cross-section of the city’s population. Decision-making followed a similar trajectory.
Today proportional representation is making a strong come-back, usually under the name “ranked choice voting.” It is widely used in other Western democracies not just for electing town councils but also for legislatures.
Legislatures you ask? This works by abandoning our familiar one district/one legislator way of doing things. Instead our Assembly district might be combined with ones to its north and south, with three or more legislators chosen from that enlarged district. Given six or more candidates, ranked choice voting would enable a broader range of political representation in Sacramento. Conceivably, both a Jordan Cunningham and a Bill Ostrander could be elected from our district, so voting for someone like Ostrander’s meaning one casts perennially wasted ballots could become a thing of the past. Multi-member legislative districts are already used in four other states.
Just last week, in a detailed analysis, the New York Times advocated this system for electing the House of Representatives. Multi-seat congressional districts with ranked choice voting would not only enfranchise Republicans in places like Massachusetts, whose nine one-seat districts are all held by Democrats despite one-third the state’s voters being Republican, it would also enfranchise liberal minorities throughout the Midwest where almost all seats are currently held by Republicans.
As I write, an interesting use of ranked choice voting is playing out in a single-winner congressional race in Maine. Whereas in California the top vote getter in a three-way congressional race would be declared winner, no matter how few votes he had, Maine has a higher regard for democratic legitimacy and requires the winner to have a majority of votes cast. To achieve that, voters ranked the three congressional candidates. Redistribution of #1 votes for the third-ranked candidate to voters’ #2 choices gives one of the remaining candidates a legitimate majority victory. Note the beauty and efficiency of this ranked voting: votes cast for the first loser aren’t wasted, but become the means for picking the winner. This “instant runoff” feature is another plus for ranked choice voting, even in single-winner elections.
Interesting as those uses of ranked choice may be, my concern is with making our SLO city council more representative of the public’s diversity. The present voting system stymies achieving that goal by handing victory to candidates backed by small well-organized constituencies, who once elected feel no responsibility to others than their backers. Councilman Aaron Gomez, for example, has repeatedly said he feels no responsibility to people who didn’t vote for him. Of course, how does he really know who voted for him?
Our unfair balloting system produces unfair decision-making, and the city’s resulting bad governance is tearing our populace apart.
I think ranked choice voting is a remedy worth trying here. As I see it, ranked choice voting combined with increasing our council from five to seven members, so more choices could be made when voting, would make for much fairer, more representative, and better city governance.
It seems a reform worth pursuing.
We have a progressive council. Ranked choice is a progressive method for increasing democracy. Making every vote count is a contemporary progressive mantra. Can our council be prevailed upon to pursue this change, which would require a charter amendment approved by voters? It is the sort of thing progressives nationwide say they believe in.
If the council refuses, citizens can do it as an initiative measure.
I hope there are enough people interested in pursuing ranked choice voting that we in SLO – and perhaps residents in other SLO County cities as well – can build a movement to make this happen.
Is it not time to see that almost all of our votes really count and the majority of votes are no longer wasted?