Earlier this week, FairVote’s home city of Takoma Park (MD) had a special election to fill a city council vacancy. The election displayed several features central to FairVote’s mission. As has been true of all Takoma Park elections since January 2007, voters used a ranked choice voting ballot to elect candidates with instant runoff voting. In the wake of council action last year inspired in part by a Promote Our Vote resolution, the city is the only jurisdiction in Maryland to have Election Day registration and allow all current residents to vote without regard to felony conviction, the only city that we know of outside of Minnesota to guarantee candidates the ability to knock on the doors of voters who live in apartment buildings, and the only city in the United States to allow all citizens to vote who are at least sixteen years old.
The election turned out to be very close. Kate Stewart edged Roger Schlegel in the final instant runoff by a slim margin of 332 to 324. Although ranked choice voting played a relatively minor role in the election, it would have avoided the need for a separate election if the city had required a majority of votes in the first round to win. In the first round, the vote was 323 for Stewart to 315 for Schlegel, with 22 votes for other candidates. Each candidate picked up nine votes in the instant runoff, giving Stewart 50.6% of the final round vote and a majority of all votes cast. Despite the non-November election date, more voters participated than had voted in the Ward since before 1990.
During early voting on April 6-7 and on Election Day on April 8, 2014, FairVote conducted a voluntary survey of voters in the Ward 3 special election for city council. The survey focused on voter opinions about the voting process in the city and this year’s election. The results were encouraging for supporters of ranked choice voting and those interested in Takoma Park’s suffrage laws. Here are a few highlights:
Views about the campaign: Voters saw the election as a substantive, positive campaign.
- Compared to most other elections, 54% said their vote felt less like it was wasted and only 1% said more.
- Compared to recent council elections, 47% said they got more information and only 9% said less.
- Compared to elections without instant runoff voting, 33% said they were more inclined to vote for their preferred candidate and only 2% said less.
- Compared to most other elections, 49% said there were fewer examples of candidates criticizing one another while, while 2% said more.
Views on voting laws: Most voters support retaining the city’s voting laws.
- Instant runoff voting had 93% support among the respondents with an opinion (25% had no opinion).
- Election day registration was backed by 89% of all those who took the survey.
- Voting by noncitizen residents was backed by 80% of respondents.
- Voting by all citizen residents with felony convictions was backed by 76% of respondents.
- Guaranteed candidate access to apartment buildings was backed by 75% of respondents.
- Creation of a voter turnout task force was backed by 73% of respondents.
- Voting for 16 and 17-year-olds was backed by 72% of respondents.
The city reports that 14 voters who were 16 or 17 voted in the election. That was higher than the total number of all voters who were 18 to 30, a statistic also true of the November 2013 election that represented the first-ever election with all 16-year-olds eligible to vote. Although FairVote recognizes that many people still aren’t used to the idea of lowering the voting age, the evidence from Takoma Park and from international elections demonstrates that turnout in this age group will be higher than slightly older voters, and studies suggest these voters are as well-equipped to vote as older voters.
Other notable findings:
- When asked whether voting was more a right, privilege or responsibility, 72% said it was a responsibility, 34% said it was a right, and 19% said it was a privilege (several respondents selected more than one choice). We see this as evidence that we need to keep talking about what it means for voting to be a right as well as a responsibility.
- The electorate was not representative, as is so often true in local elections held apart from major November elections. The median voter was in their mid-fifties and had a graduate degree and a household income of more than $100,000.
- Only 7% of respondents thought that it was okay if the council had representatives of only one gender, and a majority want men and women to be equally likely to be elected (as FairVote encourages through its Representation 2020 project). The election was notable in that if Stewart had lost, the council indeed would have been all-male. Her lead opponent Schlegel was a strong voice during the campaign for the city taking steps to encourage more women to run.
Finally, we believe the results show that Takoma Park has fully adapted to the use of instant runoff voting, making exit surveys and any special voter education unnecessary. We believe voter education is always good, and want to make sure that no one ranks only one candidate due to a mistaken belief that ranking additional candidates could hurt one’s top choice (about 5% of voters said they did so for that reason). But even with nearly a third of voters not understanding ranked choice voting or understanding it only partially before voting, voters overwhelmingly used the system well. Only a single ballot didn’t count due to an error, and more than three in four voters ranked at least two candidates. Led by Takoma Park’s city clerk Jessie Carpenter, the elections department has an excellent ballot design and instructions that seem to be sufficient even when nothing special is done for voter education, as is now the case in Takoma Park. 84% of respondents said it was easy to rank candidates while just 3% said it was hard, and 166 respondents said ranking was "very easy" while only one person said it was "very hard." This is consistent with findings to be reported in a new scholarly study overseen by Caroline Tolbert and Todd Donovan that also shows measurable positive impacts on candidates running campaigns with greater civility (previewed here).
The bottom line is that voting laws that may seem “daring” can quickly become “normal.” These reforms have significantly improved elections in Takoma Park, and we expect them to take hold soon in more and more local and state elections around the United States.