Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

DC needs to add a runoff element to the elections process

I have a master list of steps DC could take to improve the local political and governance process ("Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)") although it's in need of a wee bit of updating.

For example, one recommendation is that the primary be moved from April to June or July, and another is that special elections for ward seats could shift to the mail, since it costs many hundreds of thousands of dollars to run such an election, and generally turnout is low, as it was earlier this year for the special election for the Ward 8 seat on the State Board of Education ("The Little-Known Election That's About to Cost the District $300,000," Washington City Paper).

(In Oregon and Colorado all elections are conducted via the mail, which is good for the Postal Service.  In Washington State, state and national elections are conducted by mail, and counties have the option of running their elections by mail, and most do.)

Ward-based special elections.  For Council seats, because so many people run, the person who gets elected wins without a majority of votes.  In the Ward 6 race in the late 1990s, there were close to 20 candidates.

In the special elections in 2007, for Ward 4 after Adrian Fenty became mayor, there were 19 candidates and in the Ward 7 election which was held because Vincent Gray moved up to Council Chairman, there were 18 candidates.  Muriel Bowser won the W4 seat with about 40% of the vote and Yvette Alexander won the W7 seat with about one-third of the vote.

In the 2012 special election for Ward 5, Kenyan McDuffie won with about 42% of the vote, and of the eleven other candidates, two had vote totals in the double digits.

This year's at-large City Council race.  The way at-large seats work is there are two seats up every two years.  In the General Election, people vote for two candidates.

The Home Rule Charter specifies that at least one of the positions has to be held by the non-dominant political party--in this case the Democrats.  In the recent past such seats had been held by Republicans (Carol Schwartz, David Catania) or the Statehood-Green Party (Hilda Mason).

But in 1988, then Democrat William Lightfoot figured out he could run as an "independent" and still be eligible to be seated upon election, and that has unleashed a large number of Democrats switching to independent and running that way.

Now, Republicans and Statehood-Green candidates are outpolled by Democrats running as independents for seats as At-Large Council Members.

Because David Catania is stepping down from his Council seat to run for Mayor, this year's at-large Council race has 15 candidates, as most feel that they might have a shot running for seat without an incumbent running.

In all likelihood, Democrat Anita Bonds will win one seat.  The other seat will go to whoever gets the highest number of votes who is not a Democrat.  (In theory, a party candidate from the dominant party could be outpolled by two other candidates and therefore not be elected, but that hasn't happened yet.)

The likelihood is that the winning "independent" or non-dominant party affiliate (the Republicans, Statehood-Green, and Libertarian Parties all have candidates on the ballot) will win with a preponderance or plurality of votes but not a majority.

Anita Bonds is running as Democrat, Eugene Puryear for the Statehood-Greens, Marc Morgan for the Republicans, and Frederick Steiner as a Libertarian. The other 11 candidates are running as independents, and many have been traditionally affiliated with the Democratic party. Those candidates are Michael D. Brown, Wendell Felder, Calvin H. Gurley, Graylan Scott Hagler, Brian Hart, Eric J. Jones, Khalid Pitts, Kishan Putta, Elissa Silverman, Courtney R. Snowden, and Robert White.

Council Chairman race.  There are five candidates, but Phil Mendelson, the current office holder and stalwart Democrat, is likely to win in a landslide.

Attorney General race.  There are five candidates running for this newly created elected position.

Normally, the seat would have been part of the primary election cycle, but this year because of unusual circumstances, that did not occur.  So all five candidates are running as Democrats in the General Election, when normally only one Democratic nominee would be on the General Election ballot.  The likelihood of one candidate winning a majority of the votes is remote.

This year's Mayoral race.   This year's Mayoral election has multiple candidates as well, the Democrat Muriel Bowser, two former Republicans who have served on City Council and are well known across the city running as Independents, David Catania and Carol Schwartz, Bruce Majors running as the Libertarian Party candidate, Faith for the Statehood-Green Party, and another independent, Nestor Djonkam.

In a normal year, the Democratic nominee would win in a landslide, with more than 50% of the vote.
This year, because of two prominent independent candidates, it is not expected that the winner will poll more than 40% of the vote ("For DC's black voters, the choice isn't so clear," Washington Post).

Recommendation:  DC should add runoff requirements for elections when the winning candidate receives less than 50% of the vote

In most special elections, people point out that the winning candidate was outpolled by other the total of two or more of the other candidates, with no candidate receiving a majority of the votes.

One alternative, which is in my master list of recommended changes, is to have ranked choice voting (a variant of proportional voting).  This would distribute the votes upward, as each candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and votes are redistributed.

But the likelihood of passing such a system is remote.  Recently, this was tried for one election in Pierce County, Washington ("The highly paid DC City Council and governance and voting systems") but was overturned soon after the 2008 election cycle.

Therefore, I recommend that DC add a runoff requirement for elections to all offices, when the top vote getter doesn't get a majority of the votes.

With the 2014 election cycle, it would mean certain runoffs in the At-Large, Attorney General, and Mayoral races.

Yes, it does add expense to the process, but it would make the elections more competitive and increase the possibility of "regime change" as in most cases, the Democratic nominee will win a plurality (the most) but not necessarily a majority of votes.

Past at-large elections.  In the 2013 special election, Democrat Anita Bonds won with 31% of the vote.  There were seven candidates and two progressive candidates had 35% of the vote between them, and Republican Patrick Mara had 24% of the vote.  A runoff would have pitted Anita Bonds against progressive candidate Elissa Silverman.

In the 2011 special election, Vincent Orange won with about 29% of the vote.  There were nine candidates total, and Republican Patrick Mara got about 25% of the vote.  Had there been a runoff, Orange and Mara would have gone head-to-head.

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At 8:24 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yes, normally I am not a fan of runoff systems.

And in terms of the top line offices, I don't think they will do much. AG seat this year maybe.

In terms of the at large seat, I can see a huge impact this year.

(and if you're going to do one, might as well do them all?)

I'd be curious to know how much the elections cost in DC -- they seem way overstaffed compared to Virginia.

Other positive thing about runoffs is they scare off less informed and educated voters, although I doubt we share that goal!

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't have an opinion about runoffs generally. Haven't really thought about it.

I just added a paragraph to the end of the entry on the 2011 and 2013 special elections for at large. In both cases, the winner had less than 35% of the vote and a runoff could have resulted in significant changes--probably not in the 2011 election, because normally DC is so "Democratic", but since less informed voters tend to skip runoffs as you mentioned, maybe Republican Patrick Mara would have won.

Similarly, in the 2013 election, it would have been very interesting to see what would have happened with Anita Bonds of the Old School Legacy Democrats in a runoff with Elissa Silverman of the Progressive Wing. (During the campaign Silverman waffled on Smart Growth issues, falling into the Outer City more suburban oriented residents' camp).

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

although I consider runoffs different from the Seattle system where the top two candidates in the primary (in technically non partisan elections) move to the general election.

That's how Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant got to the general election ballot. She was #2, and distant from the #1 vote getter. However, she prevailed in the general election.

HOWEVER, Seattle is moving to a ward system with the next election cycle. It was believed it would make having more progressive candidates have greater chances in places like Capitol Hill, but Sawant shockingly won anyway.

I don't know what the impact will be with the top two going to the general election ballot from the primary on a ward-based representation system.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

But note in California, where the top two move to the ballot now, I guess it is called a "blanket primary", in a belief this would increase "centrism" and reduce partisanship, Democrats are sometimes getting knocked off the general election ballot because they have too many candidates splitting up the vote.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Voter turnout is going to be a record low for this election.

If there was a run-off, the voting rate for that would be even lower.

There is a certain value in letting frequent voters choose the leaders but we both agree it is GD shame about voter rates in the District.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

There was a piece in yesterday's NYT about the Toronto election, which is Monday.

It made the point that because Ontario municipal elections forbid party affiliation, getting elected focuses on "personality" rather than party program and platforms.

I thought that was reasonably apt for our situation, the vast majority of everyone being "Democrat" means that people can run without platforms and it becomes more about personality than program.

That's what we're dealing with now.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yep. Exactly.

It's why a lot of "reform" or goo-goo doesn't really work.

Balancing act between building a democractic system that allows regime change -- but is also accountable and creates good government - is very difficult.

ANd if we take a step back, the fundamaental problem in DC is we have a system that is very diseganged from the actual population, tends to reward people who are "Frequent voters" and go to ANC meeting, and is more cult-based than outcome based.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

This is a tough nut to crack. I have this line from college "After going to relatively authoritarian school settings for 13-17 years of your life, it's unreasonable to expect that upon graduation, they'll become active, free-thinking, participating members of society."

For one, a lot of people aren't interested. I can't say that's a bad thing necessarily. Sure, you should have to participate in something local/civic for at least one hour/month, even if it's picking up litter in your neighborhood.

But to really understand stuff requires going far beyond such a limited commitment.

And people have other things to do.

2. I have this theoretical position that we can do more by building a training, support, and capacity building infrastructure for participation, in many areas.

It would help, but probably not as much as I believe.

but e.g., when I was on the ANC6C planning committee from 2003 to 2005 and also on H St. Main St., the Main Street program sponsored many hard core commercial district trainings, including the "4 point" training by the Nat. Trust, one of which was on design/architecture, and these programs were open to anyone.

I kept encouraging fellow planning committee members to go and they never did. I tried to get the ANC to subscribe to the Zoning Advisory newsletter from the APA and the once published "Planning Commissioners Journal" and they never would, even though the expense for both was less than $150. etc.

3. I have been meaning to write about this in context of the legislation by Grosso to put certain requirements for posting agendas on ANCs, as an example, like the biking on sidewalks legislation, of how CM approaches typically miss the point, are very parochial, aren't structural in a substantive sense.

In fact, I intended to write a "damning piece" about Muriel Bowser on this dimension and why that disqualifies her from being mayor, and then I realized that this is an affliction common to most every Councilmember, including to some extent, Catania (e.g., his proposed truancy law).

4. Anyway, ANCs need training and support, should have committees (some do, most don't), should probably meet as a full body at least twice/month (part of the reason meetings descend into madness is that the agendas are too full), commissioners should probably get a small stipend ($500-$750 month?), AND that people who work for City Govt.--either the exec. or legislative branches-- probably shouldn't be allowed to be elected because it creates an inherent conflict of interest.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you have written about and described it over the years, our "elected" political system needs reform.

Elections have devolved into popularity contests--in DC limited to Democrats only--and the winners get to pass out the resulting swag: jobs, connections, contracts, etc.

Thoroughly compromised from the get go. Time for a change...



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