A choice deal:
Ranking your candidates at the ballot box

By John Wood
Published June 1st 2004 in Santa Monica Daily Press
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.