Overview of problems:
The second largest municipality in Vermont, the Town of Essex and its self-governing subdivision, the Village of Essex Junction, plan to merge. Essex is located near Burlington, VT, which ran its first mayoral election under instant runoff voting in March 2006.
The Town Selectboard currently governs both municipalities, but the at-large, winner-take-all system used to elect its members means the Village does not hold even one of five seats. Town residents, who account for just over half of Essex voters and generally vote in a block, sweep the staggered (2-2-1) elections. Of concern to residents are low voter turnout except in presidential primary years (1), low rates of seat contestation (2), underrepresentation of women, and town-village animosity especially due to different tax burdens.
The merged community likely would have a seven-member town council. Residents and members of the Merger Task Force have advanced various proposals to ensure fairer representation for Village residents. Among them are:
- single-member plurality districts,
- term limits,
- proportional voting (proportional representation, or PR) in at-large elections.
A merger without any reform means the Village of Essex Junction will face taxation without representation. Misguided reform will, one, exacerbate current tensions and, two, do nothing about abysmal participation.
Single-member districts (SMD) are the most common electoral arrangement in the United States. Each voter has one vote, and each district elects one representative. Advantages are that districts could be drawn to ensure Village representation with no voter education or change to voting equipment. But districts do not address the underlying problem of geographic polarization. In fact, they may exacerbate existing tensions where small districts encourage candidates to cater to narrow constituencies. Policy-making becomes a parochial race for city-wide resources. The SMD option can lead to political battles over gerrymandering. Finally, because SMDs involve single, plurality winners, they are particularly subject to spoiler problems.
Term limits cap the amount of time an official can sit in office. The expected advantage is more seat turnover. At the same time, potential challengers still have a disincentive to run, choosing to wait out an incumbent's term limit. Sometimes outgoing officials simply anoint their successors. Seat turnover, furthermore, does not equal minority representation. Term limits do not get to the heart of the problem: a geographically polarized electorate and a voting system that awards 100% of seats to just over 50% of voters.
Proportional voting options:
There are three possible proportional voting methods. Each could ensure majority rule and minority representation without undemocratic appointments, quota systems, or purposeful gerrmandering. PR would create the conditions for higer voter turnout, more competitive elections and cooperative policy-making.
- Under choice voting, voters would rank choices in order of preference (1 for my favorite, 2 for the next best, 3, and so on). Choice voting is similar to instant runoff voting (IRV) except that IRV is for single-winner races. According to administrators, voters had almost no trouble understanding or filling out the ranked ballots in Burlington's March 2006 election. The error rate was less than 0.1%.
Choice voting delivers the fairest, most representative election results. At the same time, no as-is voting machine currently supports it. Essex would need a hand-count system, significant upgrades to current Diebold equipment, or a creative solution like that adopted in Burlington - use machines to count first choices; use human hands thereafter.
- Under limited voting, voters cast fewer votes than there are seats to fill. The advantages are satisfactorily fair election results with minimal voter education and no added equipment cost. A significant disadvantage is that like-minded candidates can spoil each other's candidacies. This is because votes for a loser and additional votes a winner does not need, unlike in choice voting, do not transfer to the voter's next choice.
Nevertheless, scores of communities around the United States - and indeed, countries around the world - have succesfully used limited voting to ensure fair representation for minority groups.
- Cumulative voting gives the voter as many votes as there are seats to fill, but the voter can cast those votes in any combination: all for one candidate, split between two, split among three, et cetera. Every voter has equal voting strength; cumulative voting is about how the voter distributes that strength. Like limited voting, it is subject to spoilers, but simple to understand. In some cases it requires no equipment modifications. And like limited voting, many U.S. jurisdictions have used it to solve problems of minority inclusion.
The report linked in the final section (3) of this page addresses each voting system in greater detail, including one likely political outcome under each.
In at least four of the last ten races, candidates ran unopposed. In no election since 1997 has the number of candidates been more than two per open seat. The number of candidates for 1999 was unavailable, as there was no ballot on file.
Except when Selectboard races coincided with U.S. presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004, turnout was under 10%.
Outside of primary years, the highest turnout was in 2002, when Villager Deb Billado ran and lost. Between the two presidential primary years, turnout was higher when Villager Leo Couture ran and lost in 2000.
When Villagers run, elections are more competitive, and turnout increases. Real competition under a truly representative system would drive turnout even higher because challengers would have real opportunities to win.
Source: Town of Essex
For more information:
Rate your local election system with this City Council Election Methods Manual (PDF 97k).
Current Town and Village election methods score -16, -10 and -7 overall on eighteen criteria (including voter participation, majority rule, and representativeness), while choice voting scores a +20.