Healthy Next Steps for Democracy in Santa Monica Part II

By Michael Feinstein, Santa Monica City Councilmember
Published December 18th 2002 in Santa Monica Mirror
Santa Monica’s current voting system has many advantages.  But it can also be improved.  How do we make it better, without losing the good we already have?

Under our current system, Santa Monicans can vote for all seven City Council seats.  Elected officials must know the city and be responsive across geographical lines to win.  After each election, residents have seven Council members they can approach, increasing the likelihood they’ll find someone with whom they share a perspective as issues vary.

But perhaps the greatest benefit is that because we elect several positions at once in a community-wide, multi-seat election, our results are semi-proportional.  Voters are able to ‘self-group’ -- in different combinations around different candidates -- reflecting a range of priorities that evolve and shift with each race.

This proportionality is far preferable to limiting representation and choice through imposing single-seat, winner-take-all districts.  In such districts, only one perspective wins, all others lose, voters can be trapped within a ‘lesser-of-evils/spoiler’ voting dynamic and the incentive for policy-makers to work community-wide is decreased (see www.goodgovernment4santamonica.com for more).

Our current system has two main, related issues that we need to address.

First, if a majority of voters  (say 60%) vote in unison, they can overwhelm the rest and elect a disproportionate ‘super-majority’ (say 100%) of the seats. Instead, we want a system where viewpoints are represented in the proportion that they exist within the community.

Second, voters are sometimes incentivized to strategically cast fewer votes than they are entitled to – often called ‘bullet’ or ‘under’ voting -- to promote the election of their most favored candidate, lest a vote for another helps defeat their strongest preference.   Instead, we want voters to be free to express their preferences fully, without
fear of backfire.

Full Representation – Choice Voting

Choice Voting would give fuller representation to the diversity of our community, helping ensure that everyone's vote counts and that all political perspectives are represented.

Also known as "proportional representation", "preferential voting" or the ‘single transferable vote, in Choice Voting, voters simply rank the candidates in the order of their preference (1,2,3,4, etc...), ranking as many or as few as they would like.  Once a voter's first choice is elected or eliminated, surplus votes are then "transferred" to their subsequent preferences, until all seats are filled (www.fairvote.org/factshts/choice1.htm).

Because not all votes are ranked the same, a majority of voters cannot be over-represented in this system.  Instead of casting equally-weighted votes for several candidates simultaneously, voters are compelled to indicate their individual priorities more clearly.  This helps lead to identifying community priorities more clearly, while achieving a more representative proportionality in the final result.

Also, because a lower preference vote never undermines a higher one, the incentive to ‘under-vote’ is eliminated. This takes the guesswork out of our elections and makes voting as easy as 1, 2, and 3.  Eventually, nearly every voter has their preferences help elect at least one of the winning candidates and most often at least one of their top choices.

Choice voting is recommended by the National Civic League in its Model City Charter, as the best way to elect city government.  In Cambridge, Massachusetts – a community with many similarities to Santa Monica – it has been successfully in use for decades, as it has been in Ireland and Australia well.  Closer to home, the Motion Picture Academy uses it to choose the Academy Awards finalists, while just last year San Francisco voted to implement a similar system.

Santa Monica formally looked at this issue recently in 1992. The City’s Charter Review Commission recommended Choice Voting as the best option for local elections.

Although the City Council was split at the time and did not act on this recommendation, in 1999 it gave City Staff direction to further explore the use of Choice Voting for local elections, a process that was to also included the Santa Monica League of Women Voters.

In 2001, the League’s membership subsequently took the position that it supports "consideration of alternative voting systems for Santa Monica elections with a special emphasis on the single transferable vote or Choice {Voting} system."

Instead of the forced, high-stakes, debate the community went through in November over Measure HH, this time the city should take a more measured and learned approach to electoral reform, attempting to build consensus rather than rushing to the ballot box.  

Exposure and education about Choice Voting should begin on the grassroots community level – from civic and neighborhood organizations’ board of directors, to SAMOHI and SMC student government, to mock elections and the City’s own polling of residents on community priorities.

With such a considered approach, we may find that Santa Monicans will grow to appreciate the greater flexibility and power Choice Voting provides and support its adoption for use in City elections.