Study of Undervotes in Recent Santa Monica Elections
Amy Connolly, Julie Walters
March 25, 2004

1 Introduction

Santa Monica currently uses what is known as Block Voting to elect its city council. In this system, each voter gets to cast as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and the winners are the candidates with the most votes. Although this system is better than the single-member district plurality system used in most American elections, it does share some disadvantages with electing councilmembers by district. If Santa Monica were to adopt Choice Voting for its city council elections, these disadvantages would be eliminated, while the most important advantages of the current system, including city-wide representation, would be retained.

One of the potential problems with Block Voting is that voters are compelled to vote strategically. For instance, a voter, having cast one vote for his or her favorite candidate may be reluctant to cast his or her remaining votes, since those votes may decrease the likelihood of their favorite taking office, voters tend to "undervote," that is, they often do not cast all of their votes.

This study, performed by Santa Monica Ranked Voting, lays out the number of allotted votes that were not cast by Santa Monica voters, and the number of voters that did not cast all of their votes. This study finds that at least a third of Santa Monica voters consistently undervote. This means that voters are not giving a full picture of their political preferences under the current system. Choice Voting would render a more directly proportional result than with the current system, helping ensure that all aspects of our community are fairly represented.

2 How It Works

We obtained the number of ballots cast and number votes cast in the last three city council
elections from the city clerk's office. The statistics for the 1998 and 2002 elections may be
found on the web:
1998 results
2002 results
The results of the 2000 election were obtained via private communication with the city clerk's office and may be found at Santa Monica Ranked Voting's website, For each election, we obtained the number of ballots cast and the number of votes cast. Since each voter is entitled to the same number of votes as there are seats to be filled, the total number of votes that could have been cast is given by:

# possible votes = # ballots cast x # seats

Then, the average number of votes cast per ballot is:

# votes per ballot = # votes cast / # ballots cast

The number of votes that were "missing" when votes were tallied (i.e., the number of allotted votes that were not cast) is:

# missing votes = # possible votes -- # votes cast

Now let's say that all undervoters cast only a single vote. Then each undervoter is responsible
for a number of missing votes given by

# missing votes per voter = # seats - 1

Then, the number of people that undervoted is:

# undervoters = # missing votes / # missing votes per voter

Note that this scenario is an extreme case, and gives the smallest possible number of undervoters. If anyone who undervotes casts more than one vote, then the missing votes will be distributed among more voters.

3 What We Found

Table 1 and 2 show our results.

year seats ballots cast possible votes votes cast votes per ballot 
1998 33,026 99,081 74,654 2.26 out of 3 
200042,659 170,636 115,800 2.70 out of 4 
2002 30,853 92,559 70,777 2.29 out of 3 

Table 1: This table shows the average number of votes cast per ballot in each of the past three Santa Monica city council elections.

year seats missing votes minimum undervotes minimum % that undervoted 
1998 24,427 12,214 37.0 
2000 454,836 18,279 42.8 
2002 321,782 10,891 35.3 

Table 2: This table shows the minimum number of undervoters in each of the past three Santa Monica city council elections.

4 Conclusions

This report shows that consistently at least one third of Santa Monica voters are undervoting in city council elections. We contend that this is due to the voting system currently in place, and we recommend that Santa Monica consider Choice Voting for its elections. Choice Voting eliminates the need for strategic votes and maximizes the effectiveness of each vote.

The Winner-Take-All Problem
“Winner-take-all” is a term used to describe single member district and at large election systems that award seats to the highest vote getters without ensuring fair representation for minority groups. In the United States, these are typically single-member district schemes or at-large, block-voting systems. Under winner-take-all rules, a slim majority of voters can control 100% of seats, leaving everyone else effectively without representation. Problems this leads to include:
  • Severe under-representation of women, communities of color, third parties, young people, and major party backers stuck in areas where another party dominates. Winner-take-all election systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win election can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.
  • Since many areas are dominated by a single political viewpoint, winner-take-all voting systems will often result in no-choice elections where one party has a permanent monopoly on power, and the winner is effectively predetermined. In the United States, two in five state legislative races go uncontested as a result, and nearly 99% of congressional incumbents win reelection by large margins.
  • High percentages of “wasted votes” (that is, votes cast for candidates who do not win). Winner-take-all elections frequently result in more than 50% of votes being wasted. More voters will be represented by someone who they did not help to elect than under any other system.
  • Undervoting. Under at-large systems in particular, voters who feel strongly about a single candidate will be likely to “bullet vote” (that is, use only one of their votes) to help their preferred choice win election. In this way, winner-take-all discourages voters from expressing their full range of political preferences.
  • Decreased voter turnout. With limited choice, and little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, many people will unsurprisingly choose not to participate.
  • Divisive campaigns that fail to address challenging issues and ignore entire constituencies. Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support. Negative campaigning is often a sensible and effective strategy.
Winner-take-all systems are an anachronism in the modern world, as nearly every emerging democracy has rejected their use. They were introduced to America by the British during the colonial era, and are virtually unknown in other developed countries. Their failings lie at the root of many of our current political problems.