Runoff cure for split vote?
Majority unlikely with nine mayoral candidates

By Kate House-Layton
Published September 16th 2007 in Delaware State News
DOVER — In 2004, Stephen R. Speed beat five opponents to become mayor of Dover.

The open election saw the city’s largest number of candidates to date.

Mr. Speed took 24 percent of the vote. Two of his competitors, Robin R. Christiansen and William H. Daisey took similar shares of votes for a narrow margin behind Mr. Speed.

Two years later, with just two opponents, Mr. Speed captured 60 percent of the vote.

Dover set another record this year with nine mayoral candidates for this Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat Mr. Speed left in July for a job at Delaware State University.

Ellen O. Wasfi, who serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Greater Dover, is pleased to see so many candidates in the election.

“It shows that there are people from all walks of life in all aspects of the community that want to take part in how the city is run,” she said.

She also anticipates good voter turnout due to the number of candidates.

If six candidates split the vote in 2004, however, will nine divide the percentages more?

She and others say yes.

“What the logical thinking would dictate is that it’s unlikely there would be one majority candidate,” Ms. Wasfi said. “Voter turnout, no matter how many people turn out, you’re going to get a split of the vote.”

Ms. Wasfi believes in the concept of runoff elections which narrows the candidates who took the most votes to get a stronger election majority.

Other cities, Ms. Wasfi said, hold runoff elections, although they can be expensive.

“The question is how satisfied is the citizenry of Dover?” she asked. “If there is dissatisfaction, how much satisfaction would there be if we had a runoff election.”

Technology for instant runoff voting also exists, she said.

In these instances, voters have the opportunity to select their top three candidate choices. The machine tabulates the choices and allocates points per each choice to determine a true victory.

The software, she said, is expensive for the initial investment, but could save the cost of a runoff election.

The whole point of majority rule in an election, she said, is to put the person who satisfied the majority of voters and their concerns in office.

Robert Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, The Center for Voting and Democracy out of Takoma Park, Md., believes an election with nine candidates could fracture the vote.

“If you just happen to be the one that has the most votes, that’s not necessarily the popular choice,” he said.

It can also affect campaigns, he said.

If candidates thinks they can win by a certain percentage, they might only focus on the group of people where they know they could get the votes.

A large number of candidates can be troubling to a voter who has to choose between two people they like.

Runoff voting can take away some of the negative edge of campaigning.

Robert’s Rules of Order, the basic handbook of operation for most clubs, organizations and other groups, recommends runoff voting, Mr. Richie said.

“There’s a lot of evidence that voters will abandon their first choice if they think it’s fruitless and will then go to their next choice,” he said.

Former Dover City Councilman and election board chairman Thomas J. Leary agrees elections should show more decisive victories.

“What type of persuasive power does a mayor have going in winning 15 percent?” he asked.

“It seems to me the chief argument (against runoff voting) has been since it’s new we shouldn’t try it,” Mr. Leary said.

“The real surprise through this whole thing, because no one is a stronger personality than the others, the one who is able to get out and get people to vote is the one that’s going to pull it off,” Mr. Leary also said. “That’s the one who shook the most hands and is better organized.”

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff, a George Washington Distinguished Professor of history and political science and law studies director at Delaware State University, took a look at the variables that could affect election results.

“We start with the assumption before we know anything that we have a nine slice pie and all pieces are equal,” he said.

He noted the election is on a weekday. He also said you have to look at special election patterns how much voter loyalty each candidate could carry and prior election performance.

“We’ve seen the drawing power of the incumbents on the council,” Dr. Hoff said, referring to Dover City Council members Carleton E. Carey Sr. and Reuben Salters. “We’re looking at Mr. Carey and Mr. Salters with the possibility of bringing in, say, 1,000 votes,” he said.

Mr. Daisey, a former councilman and mayoral candidate, possesses the same performance potential, he said.

The other candidates have the task to not only to pull in the same amount of votes, but pull them from the same constituencies as their competitors, Dr. Hoff said.

“One will have to go beyond the basic constituency,” he said.

Name recognition carries weight, he said, but voters could choose a first-timer if they feel another candidate ignored a pet issue.

Because Mr. Carey and Mr. Salters serve on Dover City Council, voters might want to keep them on the panel, Dr. Hoff also said.

“It’ll be fascinating to see how some of the dynamics turn out,” he said.