The simple solution is to vote

By Brian Hicks
Published October 14th 2009 in The Post and Courier
Two out of three Mount Pleasant mayoral candidates have concerns about how the town conducts its elections.

Which is kind of funny because two out of three of them also will be unhappy with the results of the election come Nov. 3.

In interviews with The Post and Courier, mayoral hopefuls and Town Councilmen Joe Bustos and Billy Swails admitted they aren't crazy about Mt. P.'s "plurality elections."

That means if you have, say, three guys running for the same job, the one who gets the most votes wins -- even if he gets significantly less than 50 percent of the votes.

In that situation, a lot of places -- Charleston, for instance -- will hold a runoff for the top two vote-getters.

Mount Pleasant doesn't do that.

And Gary Santos, the other candidate and also a town councilman, says he's perfectly fine with the way the town handles elections.

The real problem here is that, in many instances, neither plurality elections or run-offs are ideal.

The few, the not-so-proud

Right now, Mount Pleasant's population is about 65,000. Of those folks, about 45,000 are registered to vote and, in recent municipal elections, turnout has hovered around an abysmal 13 percent. Unfortunately, that's pretty typical of most places.

Marilyn Bowers, director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, says candidates and issues drive turnout. So, to be generous, say this election -- with 19 council candidates (for four seats) and three mayor hopefuls -- draws 25 percent of voters. That's about 11,000 folks.

With that kind of turnout, you are assured of one thing: Not a whole lot of folks are going to choose the next mayor.

That's what Bustos and Swails don't like, and they have good reason. But the alternative, unfortunately, is not much better. If the town held a runoff, it would be surprising to get more than 5,000 to the polls. So even fewer people would choose the mayor.

Some towns have started moving toward a system called instant runoff voting, in which voters rank their preferences. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote on the first tally, the guy who got the least amount of votes is eliminated and the Election Commission counts the second choice of people who voted for him.

It's a little complicated, but it saves money by doing away with the need for a second round of voting (which costs just as much as the first round). South Carolina already does instant runoff voting for military and overseas voters so they aren't disenfranchised in the event of a runoff.

One simple answer

As much as people get all hysterical about presidential politics -- and these days, it seems some people live for nothing else -- there is tragically little interest in local races that have as much, and probably more, influence on people's lives.

So Mt. P. (well, part of it anyway) will go to the polls next month, and a few thousand out of those 65,000 folks will pick a new leader. A lot of people will be marginally unhappy, but that's how elections go.

Of course, there is a simple way to all of these problems: Everybody could just go ahead and vote.

IRV Soars in Twin Cities, FairVote Corrects the Pundits on Meaning of Election Night '09
Election Day '09 was a roller-coaster for election reformers.  Instant runoff voting had a great night in Minnesota, where St. Paul voters chose to implement IRV for its city elections, and Minneapolis voters used IRV for the first time—with local media touting it as a big success. As the Star-Tribune noted in endorsing IRV for St. Paul, Tuesday’s elections give the Twin Cities a chance to show the whole state of Minnesota the benefits of adopting IRV. There were disappointments in Lowell and Pierce County too, but high-profile multi-candidate races in New Jersey and New York keep policymakers focused on ways to reform elections;  the Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald were among many newspapers publishing commentary from FairVote board member and former presidential candidate John Anderson on how IRV can mitigate the problems of plurality elections.

And as pundits try to make hay out of the national implications of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections, Rob Richie in the Huffington Post concludes that the gubernatorial elections have little bearing on federal elections.