St. Louis Mayor's Race Underscores Pitfalls of Plurality Elections

News & Politics

On March 7, Lyda Krewson won the Democratic Party nomination for mayor of St. Louis City with only 32.0% of the vote. Krewson is white. Six black candidates split over two-thirds of the votes.

The problem goes beyond color. One of the hot-button issues has been the New Life homeless shelter, called a shelter of last resort because it offers beds to those who cannot get into any of the city's “Continuum of Care” shelters. Lyda Krewson, who pledges to fight crime by increasing the pay of cops, is well known for promises to shut down New Life and “put a lock on the place.” The black candidates were far more sympathetic to the shelter, with at least one joining demonstrations to keep it open.

The practice of awarding an electoral victory to the candidate with the largest number of votes (plurality) is clearly discriminatory against what a majority of voters may want. It almost begs for a candidate to find stand-ins to split the opposition vote. To avoid this, some states have a runoff election between the two highest vote-getters.

A much more democratic way to select a primary candidate or general election winner is called instant runoff voting (IRV), also knows by terms such as ranked choice voting. With this method, voters rank order their preferences by checking 1 for their favorite candidate, 2 for their next choice, and so on. To determine the winner, the candidate with the fewest first-place choices is eliminated and the second-place choices of those voters are assigned to the other candidates. This is repeated until one candidate has a simple majority.

Imagine this scenario. An organization of a few dozen people is choosing between four candidates to be its president. The election coordinator assigns candidates A, B, C and D a corner of the room and tells everyone to stand in the corner for their favorite candidate. If Candidate D has the fewest supporters, the coordinator tells those people to go stand in a corner for their next favorite candidate, who will be A, B or C. If the corner for candidate C has the fewest number of people, the coordinator tells those supporters to stand with A or B. At that point A or B is the winner.

This is the same as would happen if people ranked their preferences and computer software tabulated the results. It would take the computer only a second, maybe a few seconds if there were 12 candidates, to declare a winner. It does not take a computer genius to see how such a process could have changed the results of the March 7 election in St. Louis.

IRV is not just wishful thinking. It is already being used for national elections in Ireland and Australia. San Francisco adopted it in 2002. Minneapolis did so in 2006. A 2016 referendum determined that the state of Maine will begin using it.

There is another huge advantage to IRV that supporters rarely (if ever) mention. In non-partisan municipal elections, there are often two hotly opposed sides, such as in University City, Missouri. Both sides work furiously to have only one candidate, knowing that if they split their vote, the other side is almost sure to win. With IRV, it becomes irrelevant if one or both sides have multiple candidates. By ranking all candidates, voters simultaneously select which faction they prefer and their choice for a candidate within that faction.

If IRV is not really so hard to understand, and if it is so advantageous, why has it not spread more rapidly? One reason is entrenched politicians of both parties. IRV would make it impossible to argue that a small party “spoiled” the election.

Remember when George W. Bush won the 2000 election with a minority of votes. Democratic Party functionaries howled at the Green Party's Ralph Nader for “costing” them the election. It could just as easily be said that Al Gore “cost” Ralph Nader the election. Very few people I spoke with actually liked Gore—they just voted for him out of fear of Bush. Had there been IRV for national elections, it is very likely that millions or tens of millions would have ranked Nader first, possibly giving him a win.

The Democratic Party had 16 years to do something to try and fix the U.S. voting system. For 16 years it did nothing. By 2016, it was clear that the Democratic Party feared a system that might lead to a Green Party upsurge far more than it feared putting Donald Trump in the White House. If the Democrats loathe democracy so much, perhaps it is time to ignore them for every race from mayor to president and begin a popular referendum for IRV.

A version of this article appeared in Green Social Thought.

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