Voices & Choices

St. Louis: Racially Divided Mayor's Race Cries Out for RCV Reform

St. Louis: Racially Divided Mayor's Race Cries Out for RCV Reform

Ferguson and Michael Brown…tensions at the University of Missouri…St. Louis being crowned by Nate Silver’s 538 website as the fifth most racially segregated city in the US. If ever there was a place in need of some racial healing, it is the state of Missouri and the St. Louis region. Instead, what St. Louis got recently was a racially divided primary election for mayor that has poured salt into the wounds.

It has been decades since St. Louis elected its first African American mayor, and many are upset that, in their view, unchecked egos cost the black community an opportunity to lead this racially strained city. But also at fault was the defective “winner take all” electoral method used in the primary, which resulted in the black vote fragmenting among too many candidates.

In the Democratic primary for mayor, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson eked out a slim victory against the other six Democratic challengers, winning with only 32% of the popular vote and a slim 888 vote margin. That means more than two thirds of voters picked another candidate besides the victor.

But that’s not all. Making matters worse, Krewson was the only white candidate in the race – all of the others were African American. Krewson dominated in mostly white south St. Louis, while the three leading black candidates split the vote on the predominantly black north side. In a city that is 49 percent black, the black vote was not able to come together around a single candidate, resulting in city treasurer Tishaura Jones finishing second with 30% of the vote while city council president Lewis Reed was third with 18 percent, followed by Alderman Antonio French with 16 percent.  

This dynamic allowed the lone white candidate – and one of the more conservative Democrats in the race, endorsed by the outgoing incumbent -- to win with less than a third of the vote. In this heavily Democratic city, Krewson is expected to easily win the final round on April 4 against her Republican opponent.

St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren has observed that if either Reed or French had dropped out, Jones would have won, perhaps easily. "The fact that the black community did not rally around one candidate makes it clear they spoiled their chances of being represented by a black mayor," Warren said.

In the face of this disappointing loss, finger-pointing and recriminations are flying around the black community. Second place finisher Tishaura Jones says "Overall I felt like ego, patriarchy and sexism were the things that were leading the other candidates not to want to get out of the race. At some point we have to stop fighting each other and try to come together because now we are looking at four more years of policies that we all claim that we didn't want."

This dynamic has happened in other heavily-populated African-American cities, where what would seem to be favorable demographic does not always result in electing more black leaders. Chicago, for example, where African-Americans make up almost a third of the population, has had only one black mayor, Harold Washington Jr., in the last thirty years. Memphis, where African Americans comprise over 60 percent of the population, elected its first white mayor in 24 years in 2015. Detroit and New Orleans, which are 82 percent and 62 percent black respectively, have white mayors. New York City and Los Angeles haven’t had African American mayors in decades.

Splitting the vote among too many candidates has long been a significant barrier for racial minority communities – but the proposed solution has its own problems. Emory University political scientist Michael Leo Owens says that, to prevent too many minority candidates, a class of influential political elites must exert pressure that discourages weaker contenders from running. But in the past such tactics have resulted in the worst kind of backroom politics and political machines. Isn’t there a way to allow multiple candidates to run, and voters to pick the candidates they sincerely like, without all of them knocking each other out of the race?

Fortunately, there is. It’s called ranked choice voting (RCV). With this method, which is used in a number of major US cities, including Minneapolis, Oakland and San Francisco, as well as in the city of London, voters get to rank at least three choices, instead of picking only one candidate.  You put your favorite candidate in the top spot, and then you rank two other candidates who are your backup choices. If no candidate has a majority of first rankings, the second and third choices of backers of candidates with the least support are used to determine a majority winner in a single “instant runoff” election.

With RCV in the St. Louis election, a voter could have ranked Lewis Reed or Antonio French as her first choice, and then Tishaura Jones as the voter’s second or third choice. When Reed or French were eliminated from the “instant runoff,” due to lack of support, their voters’ votes would have gone to their second choice.

Doing this prevents “spoiler” candidates and split votes within groups of like-minded voters. It also would have ensured that the frontrunners Krewson and Jones tried to reach out beyond their base to win a true majority coalition. RCV provides incentives for candidates to extend across the usual battle lines and find common ground. That’s because the candidates may need to attract the second and third rankings from the supporters of other candidates in order to win. It changes the strategy of the election from one of “you against me” and mudslinging to one of building coalitions with the rankings to attract a majority.

This becomes especially important in any city that is divided, whether on racial, partisan or economic grounds. RCV helps to reduce the division and polarization that can too easily creep into our politics. Racial minorities in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Oakland all have done particularly well using the RCV system. In San Francisco, the first Asian American was elected mayor in 2011 and in Oakland the first Asian American woman was elected mayor in 2010 in RCV contests. In addition, RCV has resulted in the most representative and diverse Board of Supervisors in San Francisco's history. Currently, 8 out of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors are racial minorities, and six are women.

Indeed, of all 53 seats elected by RCV in the Bay Area, 59% are held by people of color. In four RCV cities, all four mayors are women and people of color first elected by RCV. In short RCV, combined with public financing of campaigns, has resulted in a diverse and representative group of elected officials, one of the most representative in the entire country. And candidates are winning by building coalitions instead of attacking opponents with slash-and-burn strategies.

One of the reasons why racial minorities have enjoyed so much success is because with RCV they are no longer splitting their votes among too many candidates. The November 2011 mayoral election in San Francisco had six Asian candidates running, but that did not prevent Ed Lee from winning because Asian voters could rank multiple candidates. Without RCV, in order to prevent that kind of vote splitting San Francisco would have seen all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing as various powerbrokers twisted arms to keep many of these Asian candidates out of the race.

But with ranked choice voting, all six of those candidates were able to run, each contributing to mobilizing the Asian vote to maximize its potential. Whichever of the candidates was the stronger of the six emerged with all of those votes supporting their candidacy. So RCV actually has been good for the Asian community’s voting cohesiveness in San Francisco.

That has also been true for the Latino community and the African American community in electing members to the city councils in these RCV cities. Racial minorities and their preferred candidates have made smart, strategic use of ranked ballots.

In addition, RCV provides some campaign finance reform, as well has resulted in increases in voter turnout. Using RCV, taxpayers have saved the cost of a needless second runoff election, and the candidates don’t have to raise money for two elections. Voters and organizations can maximize turnout by mobilizing for one election. And by getting the election over in a single RCV election in November (rather than needing a later runoff or an earlier primary), when more voters are at the polls to vote for president or governor, more voters are having a say in who their local elected officials are.

If RCV had been used in St. Louis’s Democratic mayoral primary, it’s very likely that Tishaura Jones would have been able to make up the 888 vote difference by picking up the second and third rankings from the supporters of the other black candidates. But another possibility is that Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, as the only white candidate in the race, would have had to reach out to the black community and to the supporters of the other candidates. She might still have finished first, but only if she was successful in building a coalition by attracting significant numbers of black voters. Such cross-racial coalitions are much more possible with ranked ballots. However the election turned out, the winner would have had a popular majority, which would have resulted in less division, more legitimacy and a stronger mandate.

The result in St. Louis should be a wakeup call for people of color and progressive leaders everywhere. When a white candidate wins in a black city with less than a third of the vote – and those votes are won predominantly in the white areas -- it’s time to take a look at the rules of the game that allowed that to happen. Ranked choice voting offers a proven solution that empowers communities of color as well as candidates. It is a new tool in the voting rights arsenal that should be deployed in every US city.


Image Source: Daniel Schwen

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