Choose it or lose it?
Davis voters will consider election overhaul in November

By Sonia K. Saini
Published September 21st 2006 in Sacramento News and Review

Math whiz Sonny Mohammadzadeh says Davis can achieve better elections through science.

Come November, the people of Davis will get to vote on changing the way they vote.

Measure L, an advisory measure on the fall ballot, asks if the city of Davis should consider adopting “choice voting,” a system in which voters rank their favorite candidates, in order to elect city-council members.

“There’s no legitimate reason to oppose it,” said Sonny Mohammadzadeh, a mathematics graduate student and member of Davis Citizens for Representation, the group pushing for choice voting. “It’s no coincidence that we don’t have an organized opposition.”

But Jim Stevens, a retired lawyer and former mayor of Davis, says that there’s no opposition group because people just aren’t paying attention. He worries that the votes cast in a choice-voting election system would allow “strange” people to make their way onto the city council.

Under the current voting system, the “plurality system” used in Davis, people can vote for as many candidates as there are city-council seats open, which is usually two or three. Voters don’t rank them; they just place a vote for each candidate they choose to. The candidates with the most votes each win.

Mohammadzadeh and other choice-voting backers believe this is problematic, especially when more people enter the race. The more people who run, he said, the more spread out the votes will be. The top three vote-getters can be elected based on a slight difference, and the ones who voted for the losing candidates--who may form a majority of all the voters--miss out on representation in the city council.

“It’s counterproductive to a democratic system,” said Mohammadzadeh. “We want to have majority support, and we want to encourage as many to run as possible.” He added that plurality voting “benefits the largest group of like-minded voters” but not the largest group of voters themselves.

But under choice voting, voters rank the candidates, from their first choice to last. They can rank as few or as many as they would like. All the first-choice votes are counted, and any candidate who has the minimum number of first-choice votes needed to win is elected. In a multi-seat race like a Davis city-council race, the minimum number needed to win a seat is determined by taking the total number of ballots cast and dividing it by the number of seats available plus one, and then adding one to the quotient.

But second-choice votes count, too, though they are given less weight than first-choice votes. Likewise, third-choice votes are worth less than second-choice votes and so on. Some candidates who don’t have enough votes to win a seat on the first round will see their vote totals increase as voters’ second and third choices are tabulated, eventually pushing them over the threshold needed to win.

“The system more accurately represents the voters,” Mohammadzadeh said. Even if not one of the elected candidates was a top choice for a particular voter, chances are a second or third choice was elected, he added. This becomes more meaningful as there are more candidates to choose from.

Choice voting in Davis has its roots at the university, where it was implemented in UC Davis student- government elections in 2003. Members of the campus Green Party, including then-undergraduate Mohammadzadeh, collected 2,000 signatures to put the item on the ballot for students to vote on. Once it passed, it didn’t take long to see the change.

In the fall of 2004’s elections, a slate--similar to a political party--whose candidates were 45 percent of voters’ top choices got three of the six open seats, while a slate whose candidates were 28 percent of the top choices got two. The remaining seat went to an independent candidate, and a slate with only 9 percent of top choices missed out on a seat.

Compare that with the fall of 2001, when five out of six student senate seats went to candidates from a slate that garnered only 41 percent of the votes.

Not only are the 2004 numbers more proportionate to how students voted, Mohammadzadeh said, but it diversifies the senate table. He noted that new slates and more independent candidates with different viewpoints began running because they now had a better chance. Many also credit--or blame, depending on whom you ask--choice voting with allowing students who are openly conservative to get elected. In fact, members of the Davis College Republicans--the Green Party’s traditional foes--had helped gather signatures for the campus effort.

But even if Measure L passes and the council decides to pursue it, there’s an obstacle in the way. Davis is what is called a “general law” city. It doesn’t have its own charter like the city of Sacramento, or Berkeley, or Arcata. That means the city has to follow election rules determined by the state, and those don’t include new voting schemes like choice voting.

“California state law says right now that cities that aren’t chartered have to abide by the state’s election procedures,” Mohammadzadeh said. “But there are options.”

One option, of course, is to put a charter on the ballot. Because this can bring up a whole new set of issues, it may or may not be the preferred route of Davis voters.

Another option would be for changes in state law to give cities more flexibility in their election laws.

“I think that law might just be a matter of time, because it’s kind of ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t think the majority of the population even knows what a charter is.”

He also said that Yolo County could petition the state to let the city of Davis experiment with choice voting. But for now, he and the others aren’t worried about the obstacles that lie ahead and are focused on what’s in front of them.

“Our goal is that so many people will vote yes” that the city council will take notice, he said. “We’ll take it from there.”

A vote they can’t count on is from Stevens, the former mayor.

“[A charter] will seriously change the framework of our city. The general-law framework provides a better protection for everybody from the manipulations of special-interest maniac groups,” he said. But even aside from the charter issue, Stevens doesn’t want to see choice voting in the city he’s lived in for decades.

“This is an attempt to elect people who can’t get elected any other way. All kinds of freaks would be getting elected by shifting votes from one person to another,” the self-described conservative Republican said.

That does seem to suit the idea behind choice voting, which is to represent all voters (“freaks” included). Mohammadzadeh believes this simply can’t be done under the current plurality system. “It’s failed in guaranteeing that the ones we elect are the people who represent us.”