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California Study Shows High Undervote in Citywide Council Elections Makes Case for Choice Voting System

Santa Monica Ranked Voting, a reform organization in Santa Monica (CA), drew significant media coverage for a study released in May 2004 on lessons to be learned from the high "undervote" -- meaning voters not using all available votes on their ballot -- in recent city council races. The group sensibly suggests choice voting as a system to promote political equality.

The study is available in
pdf form. 

Three local news outlets covered the release in articles below.

Santa Monica Daily Press
A `choice deal: Ranking your candidates at the ballot box
Study finds voters not fully weighing in on local city council elections

By John Wood
June 1, 2004

Despite high turnout at the polls, Santa Monica isn't rocking the vote.

More than a third of local voters consistently undervote in City Council elections, meaning they don't make full use of their ballots, a recent study found.

The biggest discrepancy was in 2000, when at least 43 percent didn't cast votes for all four open council seats. That percentage was only slightly lower in 1998 and 2002, the study shows.

Voters who feel strongly about one candidate may shy away from supporting another because it erodes the chance that their first choice will be elected, said Amy Connolly, co-founder of Santa Monica Ranked Voting, an election reform group that conducted the study.

Connolly, 29, of Santa Monica, formed the grassroots group in January with Julie Walters, who she met while both were graduate students of physics at UC Berkeley. The pair are pushing what's called choice voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference. That method is more democratic, they argue.

Under the current system, if you cast a vote for your favorite, then a vote for another candidate might actually hurt your favorite, Connolly said. But if you actually were allowed to rank your candidates first, second and third, then a vote for a second and third candidate wouldn't actually undermine your favorite

In the long haul, we would like Santa Monica to use choice voting for their general elections and in the case where they have a special election, like in 1999 where Mayor (Richard) Bloom was elected, we would advocate that Santa Monica use instant runoff voting designed for a single seat, she added.

A commission that reviewed the city charter in 1992 recommended switching to choice voting, and the concept is supported by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and City Councilmen Mike Feinstein and Kevin McKeown, Connolly said.

Though choice voting was used in a couple dozen U.S. cities in the early 1900s, its currently used only by one city Cambridge, Mass.

Santa Monica's system is called block voting. Under block voting, each voter is allowed to cast as many votes as there are open seats. The candidates with the most amount of votes win. That method is flawed because it forces voters to vote strategically, the report maintains.

Connolly's group has already attracted a following, including representatives from neighborhood groups, City Hall officials and leaders from various nonprofit organizations.

The fledgling group has met monthly in a coffee shop on Montana Avenue. Connolly said there are about 23 people actively involved online, and a handful show up at meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for the evening of June 8 in a coffee shop at Wilshire Boulevard and 11th Street.

Were interested in getting to be more involved with (the business community), but we haven't reached out to them yet. We haven't been able to although I think they would be interested in this idea, because it might bring more representation to them, Connolly said.

The group has no offices and no funding. Connolly and Walters both work other jobs. Connolly at UCLA studies high energy neutrinos in Antarctic ice. Walters works with science professor.

The impetus for Santa Monica Ranked Voting was the 2000 presidential election, when a lot of problems with the election system became apparent. Choice Voting, Connolly said, would allow people to vote for third-party candidates without hesitation, as well as foster more positive campaigning and hopefully lead to a majority of voters electing the next president.

Right after the 2000 elections I decided to do something, Connolly said. One of the things that I thought was important but was not well publicized was the problem with the voting system itself that people were afraid to vote their conscience because that ultimately could lead to a candidate being elected that they didn't support.

Santa Monica News
Local Voters Fail to Exercise Choices, Study Finds

By Olin Ericksen
June 1, 2004

With four City Council seats up for grabs in November, many Santa Monicans will likely elect not to use all the votes allotted them, a newly released study suggests.

Nearly 35 percent of all local voters chose to "undervote" in the last three City council elections according to a study published last week by a group dedicated to changing the City's current voting system.

"When over a third of Santa Monicans are not fully utilizing their votes, there is a serious flaw in the system," said Julie Walters, co-founder of Santa Monica Ranked Voting, which was formed to push for local voter reform.

Under the current election system -- known as block voting -- "a strong preference" for one candidate can discourage a voter from casting more than one of their votes, since a vote for one of their other choices would help defeat their favorite candidate, the study found.

"Although many voters recognize that the current system leads to strategic voting," Walters said, "we think that Santa Monicans will be surprised when they learn how widespread this problem really is."

In the 1998 and 2002 city council elections, between 22,000 and 25,000 votes were not cast. Those numbers were almost double in 2000, as nearly 55,000 votes were withheld from local ballot boxes, the study found.

The group, however, believes it has a solution. "Choice voting would correct this problem," said Walters.

Under a choice voting system, if a voter's favorite candidate is not elected, then that person's vote would fall to their next choice until a winner is determined.

The group also advocates using a similar method for single-seat elections to shore up what it deems as flaws in the election system.

At least two current council members -- Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown and Michael Feinstein -- have supported these proposed changes, as has the Santa Monica League of Women Voters, the group said.

For more information visit

Santa Monica Mirror
Study Shows SM Residents "Undervoting"
June 1, 2004

Santa Monica Ranked Voting has released a study of recent City Council elections, which shows that, in the 2000 election, over 40% of the people who showed up at the polls did not cast all of the votes that were allotted to them.

Under Santa Monica’s current election system, a strong preference for one candidate may cause a voter to cast fewer than his allotted votes, since a vote for any of the other candidates might help defeat his favorite.
A study of vote counts in Santa Monica’s three most recent elections reveals that Santa Monica voters consistently undervote. In 2000, the average voter cast less than three of his four allotted votes. In all three elections, over 35% of voters undervoted.
“Although many voters recognize that the current system leads to strategic voting, we think that Santa Monicans will be surprised when they learn how widespread this problem really is,” said Julie Walters, a co-founder of Santa Monica Ranked Voting. “When over a third of Santa Monicans are not fully utilizing their votes, there is a serious flaw in the system.”
Santa Monica Ranked Voting was formed to build support for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Choice Voting, two voting systems that address this and other problems in the current system.
Both IRV and Choice Voting allow voters to rank their choices for each seats. Choice Voting is designed for multi-seat elections, such as those Santa Monica holds every two years, while IRV is designed for filling a single seat, such as the 1999 special election that was held to fill a newly vacant seat on the Council. When a voter ranks his first, second and third choices, if his first choice is not elected, his vote goes to his second choice and so on, until someone is elected.
Santa Monica has flirted with Choice Voting and IRV, but never adopted either system. A 1992 city Charter Review Commission recommended Choice Voting for Santa Monica’s regular elections. The Santa Monica League of Women Voters has expressed support for the “consideration of alternative voting systems in Santa Monica elections with a special emphasis on … Choice Voting.” Councilmember Mike Feinstein and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown have both supported IRV and Choice Voting.
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