Election Study Update–April 2018

The Study Committee has made substantial progress. It has settled on criteria for judging the methods under study–single seat ranked choice, single seat plurality, ranked choice at large, and plurality at large.  Each criterion selected is supported by League principles or positions. The criteria are:

  1. Voting effectiveness: the probability that your vote will count for a winning candidate. In general, the higher the probability the more representative the resulting body.
  2. Voter participation: the percent of eligible voters that mark their ballot for a particular local contest.
  3. Promotes representative responsiveness and accountability: in part, how often do incumbents that run for re-election lose.
  4. Minimizes campaign costs.
  5. Attracts qualified candidates: qualitatively defined as a combination of leadership and legislative skills, technical knowledge, and community knowledge. Amount of competition for office is a quantitative proxy.
  6. Resistant to gerrymandering: the drawing of districts does not favor representation for some groups over others.

These criteria lead to some interesting potential consensus questions. For instance, ranked choice at large provides the highest voting effectiveness, but district voting assures geographic representation. The latter is viewed as better serving the interests of representation when voter participation varies geographically. What is the tipping point between these two, or what is the threshold of geographic voter participation variation above which districts are preferred?

Another tradeoff: While districts can provide more even representation in the event of substantial geographic variation in voter participation, they have a smaller candidate pool than at large. Consequently districts may result in more uncontested elections, suggesting lower quality candidates. Is there a size below which districts should not be used, no matter the geographic disparity in voter participation, and if so, what is that size?

The election method used by a city or school district has dramatic real-life consequences.  A number of Bay Area cities have switched from plurality at large to plurality by district–in response to threats of lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act. These include San Rafael, Martinez, Concord, South San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay.

In February, the Albany School Board voted unanimously to request that the Albany City Council place a charter amendment on the ballot specifying a transition from plurality at large to ranked choice at large. In March, the Albany City Council voted 3-2 to do so–against the unanimous recommendation of Albany’s Charter Review Committee. The Council subsequently voted 4-1 directing staff and the Charter Review Committee to gather estimates from demographic firms to analyze whether racially or ethnically polarized voting combined with plurality at large results in some racial or ethnic groups habitually not gaining representation occurs in Albany.  This result is prohibited by the California Voting Rights Act.

If you are interested in participating in the reinitiated local election method study committee, please contact action@lwvbae.org.

Action Director


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