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A better election system

Douglas J. Amy // Published October 19, 2009 in Lowell Sun
This November, voters in Lowell will have a chance to change the way they vote for City Council.

By switching to "choice voting," they will be adopting a system that is much fairer and more representative.

The at-large system that is currently used is widely considered by political scientists to be the most unfair form of city elections. Having nine votes for council allows the largest political groups in the city to win more seats than they deserve, and leaves smaller groups with little or no representation. Some citizens are able to elect four, five, six, or more councilors, while others elect none.

As a result, the council does not accurately represent the true variety of interests and constituencies present in the city.

Take, for example, neighborhoods. Since 1995, 75 percent of the city councilors have come from just two neighborhoods: Belvidere and the Upper Highlands. This is hardly fair representation.

This tendency of at-large elections to produce city councils that are not very representative is the main reason why more and more cities around the state and in the national as a whole have abandoned this form of elections. Only six of Massachusetts' 39 cities still cling to a pure at-large system.

Choice voting is much fairer system that makes it easier for a wider variety of interests to win seats on the council. Candidates need only get 10 percent of the vote to get elected -- instead of the 40 percent or more that is usuallyneeded to win office under at-large rules. This means that neighborhoods and political groups that previously went unrepresented will now be able to have a voice on the City Council.

Choice voting will also help to address another problem: low voter turnout. Studies both here and abroad have found that proportional representation systems like choice voting boost voter participation.

Right now, some people in Lowell get discouraged from voting because they feel that their vote doesn't count. And they are right: 30-40 percent of the votes in at-large elections don't help to elect anyone. But under choice voting, many more votes count, with 90 percent of the voters able to elect a candidate of their choice. This a big incentive to vote.

Choice voting should also inject some new blood into the city council. Currently, some bright and talented candidates don't run because they don't think they can get the very large number of votes needed to win in at-large elections, or they don't have the money necessary to run an effective city-wide campaign.

Under choice voting, these candidates need only attract 10-15 percent of the voters, and they don't have to spend a lot of money to do that.

Here's how choice voting works. The voting is easy: Voters simply rank their choice of candidates on the ballot by marking a "1" next to their first choice of candidates, a "2" next to their second choice, and so on. Everyone's first choice vote is counted and if any candidates get over 10 percent of the vote, they are elected. Any extra votes for these winning candidates are redistributed to candidates who were the second choice on the winner's ballots. If more seats need to be filled, the remaining candidate with the least support is declared defeated, and ballots cast for that candidate are transferred to their second choice.

This process of electing the field and reducing the field continues until all nine seats are filled, at which point more than 90 percent of voters will have helped elect one of their preferred candidates.

Understandably, some people wonder why the process has to be so complex and involve transferring votes from one candidate to another. But transferring votes is exactly what produces all the advantages of this system. So in this case, more complexity is actually good. In televisions, you must embrace a more complex technology -- like high-definition -- to get a much better picture. Similarly, you need a more complex voting system to get a better and fairer political result.

Change is never easy. But in this case, the citizens of Lowell have an opportunity to take an important step toward creating a more participatory, inclusive, and democratic form of city politics. They should turn out on Election Day and vote for this needed change.

Douglas J. Amy is professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and the author of several books and numerous articles on election systems.