Elections are good reminders of how messy democracy can be. Last week’s primary was no exception.
In some cases, we saw too much democracy. In others, we wondered if there was too little.
In the “too much democracy” category was the astounding array of candidates for at-large City Council seats – 28 on the Democratic ballot alone. On one hand, this is a celebration of participatory democracy. On the other, so many choices did no favors for voters – or for candidates. (For example, the 17,691 votes sucked up by Willie Singletary, who was supposed to be eliminated from the ballot, might have made the outcome different.) David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy has been arguing for something called ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference with winners revealed in what is essentially an instant runoff. A number of municipalities use the process, and it’s an idea worth considering here.
Another worth considering: limiting the number of candidates for offices like these by raising the minimum number of signatures required to get on the ballot.
Democracy’s imperfection was also evident in the tradition of establishing ballot position through pulling numbers out of a coffee can. We have argued for randomized ballots, and the city’s new voting machines should be programmed for this right away.
Another possible example of “not enough democracy”: the outsized power that district Council members hold despite the fact they receive a small fraction of the votes that at-large members get. This makes some sense: District candidates appear only on ballots in their districts, whereas at-large candidates appear citywide. But consider: Top at-large vote-getter Helen Gym got 107,000 votes last week (just 24,000 fewer than Mayor Jim Kenney got); Maria Quiñones-Sánchez kept her 7th District seat with 6,070 votes; Kenyatta Johnson won with 13,209 votes. Why, then, do district Council people typically have the power? And why do they always hold the Council president job?
The last time there was an at-large member serving as Council president was 1972. At-large members represent the interests of the city, not just a single district. Representing a district is a big job; an at-large member would have more bandwidth to lead and manage a 17-member Council (not an easy job). An at-large president could be better able to negotiate differences among district Council members.
If the apparent unity and lack of drama of the current Council is a mark of the president’s leadership, then Darrell L. Clarke is doing something right. But our question isn’t about personalities or individuals; it’s about asking: “Why not?" Why not, for example, follow the example of some cities and have voters choose the Council president?
The point is our current government is not set in stone. It can and must move as the needs of the city change. Do we have the right number of Council members? Do we have the right balance between at-large and district members? The irony is that if Council isn’t interested in debating these questions, nothing will happen. It should be up to voters to decide.