By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. November 23, 2015
Most voting systems work well enough when elections are not competitive. But when elections are close, the flaws and limitations of different voting systems can be exposed.
That partly explains why almost 300 Santa Monicans showed up recently on a beautiful November Sunday, to spend their afternoon indoors in the Lincoln Middle School auditorium, for the bi-annual Steering Committee election convention of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR).
Why so many people for just a Steering Committee election? Of the 26 currently elected members of the Santa Monica City Council, School Board, College Board and Rent Control Board, 24 were endorsed or supported by SMRR in their last election, including six out of seven City councilmembers.
Under SMRR bylaws, if the bi-annual SMRR candidate endorsement convention doesn’t endorse for all seats, then the SMRR Steering Committee can vote after the convention by 2/3 to “support” additional candidates, and add them to SMRR’s effective direct mail campaign literature – something it has done for at least one City Council seat each election since 2010.
That means if a voter wants to affect next year’s City Council election, they may want to affect the make up of the SMRR Steering Committee today -especially since the Steering Committee role in supporting candidates been never more prevalent.
After endorsing for only two of four City Council seats in 2012, the SMRR convention failed to endorse anyone for City Council in 2014 for the first time ever. That meant all decisions about candidate support fell to the Steering Committee – essentially delegating the strong likelihood of being on the next City Council to a group of (what turned out to be) only seven people.
All of this followed transparently from SMRR’s bylaws – indeed it is not unreasonable for SMRR as a political organization to have such a “fallback” procedure, if/when the general membership does not make endorsements for all seats. And, of all of Santa Monica’s political organizations who make such endorsements (and sponsor independent expenditure committees to support those they endorse), SMRR’s convention endorsement process is the most broadly inclusive and transparent.
But despite all this, if most/all the decisions are made by only seven people in a large membership organization, we need to ask “why”?
To receive SMRR’s convention endorsement, a candidate needs the support of 55 percent of those casting votes. But there are only a maximum of three rounds of voting, and any candidate receiving less than 20 percent in a given round is eliminated for the next.
In past years, when there has been general agreement for most seats, most convention attendees have cast most, if not all, of their votes each round.
But 2014 saw an extremely competitive convention, with eight major candidates seeking SMRR’s City Council endorsement for three seats. At the same time, multiple competing groups within SMRR (arising out of different aspects of the community) had already made pre-convention endorsements, with little cross over with each other.
As a result in such a competitive environment, if you most favor one candidate, there is an incentive to only cast one of your votes, lest your second or third preference undermine your first (by getting endorsed and leaving no more seats to be filled.) Because of this inherent limiting dynamic of SMRR’s voting system, few convention attendees in 2014 voted for their second and third choice, waiting for their first to be endorsed – which never occurred.
Ranked Choice Voting
The reform for this backfiring of democracy is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) – a system that gives voters more flexibility and choice. Under RCV, voters can rank as many candidates as they want in the order of their preference, with the knowledge that a voter’s second preference will not undermine their first. Under such a system, the incentive is for voters to rank as many candidates as they prefer.
RCV has been implemented and used with tremendous success in cities across the U.S., including Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and San Francisco in California; Minneapolis and St. Paul (MN); Portland (ME); Takoma Park (MD) and Cambridge (MA), as well as in Australia, Ireland, Sri Lanka and London, England.
How would it work at SMRR? Under RCV, voters only have to vote once. The first choice votes are sorted and counted. If the first choice votes for any candidate equal or exceed SMRR’s 55 percent threshold, that candidate is endorsed. If no candidate reaches the threshold, then candidates with the fewest number of votes are eliminated and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates in accordance with the second and third choices marked on those ballots by the voters. These reallocations continue until a candidate has reached the 55 percent threshold.
When there are three seats up for endorsement, like there were in 2014, this count would be repeated three times, with votes for a winning candidate in one round crossed off the ballot, before that same ballot is counted again in the next.
Had SMRR used RCV in 2014, the convention would have likely endorsed three candidates for City Council – better empowering the approximately 450 convention attendees, and avoiding the controversies surrounding who the Steering Committee ultimately chose to support (and which Steering Committee members did or did not recuse themselves from the vote because of their connections to some of the candidates.)
There would many other democratic advantages to this process as well.
Because the SMRR convention can include up to three rounds of voting for four different types of offices, it often turns into a marathon of who can stay for three or four hours on an August Sunday afternoon. This leads to a shrinking decision base of democracy with each round, and individual voters losing their voice when having to eventually choose to be with family.
With the amount of time devoted to multiple rounds of voting, this also means less time for candidates to actually speak. As SMRR’s conventions have become more competitive in recent years, the amount of time given to candidates to address voters has been reduced to an absurd two minutes, meaning less information available to the undecided voter
Because candidates are ranked, RCV would also decrease the value of vote trading between power brokers (persons and organizations), who often bring in large groups of voters and promise their support in exchange for the support of other large voting blocks. Even for a voter who is clear on which candidates they want to support, they are more likely to rank them in their own personal order, rather than in the order someone else tells them – especially when they’ve had a chance to hear candidate presentations of meaningful length at the convention.
We have a highly participatory democracy in Santa Monica, and most viable municipal candidates arise out of a history of community activism and involvement. Yet at the same time, owing to a variety of factors (which merit another column), we have become a mostly one-party town. This has placed increasing stress upon SMRR’s endorsement process, and exposed its limitations and flaws.
A shift to Ranked Choice Voting at the SMRR endorsement conventions would address those flaws, and better empower SMRR and our community.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein
‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.