Trial by Data

The verdict is in.  Alameda’s current voting system falls short on a number of counts.

On April 27, the Alameda League of Women Voters hosted a forum that compared various election methods:  Alameda’s current plurality-at-large system, plurality by districts, ranked-choice voting by district, and ranked-choice voting at large.  The findings were telling.

Alameda’s current “winner-take-all” elections allow candidates to win with less than 50 percent of the votes cast.  Data from the last two decades show that most mayors and city council members were elected without a majority mandate.  This can leave much of the electorate frustrated or disappointed because they voted for someone other than the winner(s).  This would also be true if a plurality-by-district system is used.

A majority mandate is achievable when using ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting.  Voters rank their top three choices in order of preference, and a runoff election is held immediately if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote.  Because voters have their second and third choices instantly tabulated, their true preferences are better represented.  Holding separate runoff elections to surpass a 50 percent threshold is expensive and usually fewer voters turn out.

Some say a wasted voted is one not cast.  But “political scientists say if you voted but end up with no political representation, it is a wasted vote,” said Preston Jordan, a cofounder of Voter Choice Albany, who was the keynote speaker at the forum.  “And if you are not represented, it’s hard to motivate voters.”  This might explain why only an average of 54 percent of eligible Alameda voters participating have bothered to vote for local candidates, according to data since 2002.

The benefits of changing Alameda’s election method are obvious, but election reform can be hard to enact.  Jordan said that elected officials are hesitant to institute election reforms because they won office under the current method.

Moving to district elections alone won’t solve Alameda’s existing electoral problems and may even create new ones.  Districts do not matter when political perspectives are mixed across the city. Using plurality at large or plurality by district makes no difference on voter or candidate participation.  However, one benefit of district elections is that they could reduce the cost of running a campaign because there are fewer voters to reach.

On the down side, district elections can result in uncontested elections because the pool of interested contenders is smaller.  Even districts using ranked-choice voting can affect policies citywide.  For example, the data shows that cities using district elections have historically had fewer housing units built.  When you represent a small area of the city, you might fight for policies that favor that area rather than the entire city.

Contentiousness and political animus usually arise when drawing district lines and often result in gerrymandering.  “An election method should not be chosen to advantage or disadvantage a particular group,” emphasized Jordan.  He suggests that district lines be drawn by an independent body, not by the city council.  Firms have developed methodologies to draw lines, but a new state law mandates that three public workshops be held to allow input from residents.  District lines also need to be revisited at least every 10 years at taxpayer expense as populations shift.

“Plurality at large is considered the worst method by political scientists,” stated Jordan.  “It was specifically chosen, as shown in historical documents, in many cities across the South because it would exclude representation for racial minorities.”

When comparing all four election methods, at large ranked-choice voting is the top choice for election reform.



Originally published in the Alameda Sun

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