Group pushes for change for new voting system

In 2017, Lyda Krewson won the Democratic nomination for mayor — and with it, the office of mayor — with 32 percent of the vote. This month Lewis Reed snatched the Democratic nomination for president of the Board of Aldermen with 36 percent of the vote.

Now an advocacy group is pushing to change the city’s election law to require that all candidates for St. Louis elected office win more than 50 percent of the vote in a two-way runoff if they don’t win a simple majority in a first round.

The group Show Me Integrity St. Louis is doing the early work it needs to circulate petitions to put an “approval voting” runoff system on the ballot. Co-founder Benjamin Singer said the group is now doing initial legal research on the plan. If everything works out, it plans to seek signatures at polls in the April 2 election.

“It’s about time that we use a good system in our election,” Singer said.

He said former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones have endorsed the concept.

In the system, candidates for mayor, alderman and other city offices run in a nonpartisan first round. Voters can choose as many candidates as they want in each race. All votes are tallied. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-winners advance to the general election.

“This would ensure that the two people that are going to a runoff are the ones who have the most support,” Singer said.

The only city in the country that has adopted approval voting is Fargo, North Dakota. Kansas City is among the places that use simple nonpartisan runoffs involving the two candidates who get the most votes in the first round.

Gary Stoff, Republican director of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, said the city’s current election equipment can’t handle an approval voter system.  The city doesn’t have the extra money to buy new equipment that would recognize more than one vote per race.

But Kenneth Warren, St. Louis University political science professor, said he didn’t understand why the city’s equipment couldn’t do that.

“It essentially weighs the candidates. Who comes in first? Who comes in second?” Warren said. “It is allowing for second preferences.”

Terry Jones, University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor, said that most places are moving toward ranked choice voting. Cities that have used it include Portland, Maine, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., and San Francisco.

In that system, also called an instant runoff, people rank their candidates, first, second, third, fourth, and so on. Candidates who get a majority of first-preference votes win. If there is no majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the smallest number of first-preference votes is eliminated. Then there is a new tally to determine if there is an outright winner. The process continues until there is an outright winner.

“I would prefer ranked choice voting,” Jones said.

Most jurisdictions that are considering a change are going toward ranked-choice voting, Jones said.

“There is no perfect system,” Jones said. “Approval voting does not give me the ability to rank A, B, and C.”

Jim Merkel

Author: Jim Merkel

Born and raised in St. Louis, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of four books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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