Davis to offer 'choice' to voters
City Council agrees to an advisory measure on changing elections.

By Erika Chavez
Published July 13th 2006 in Sacramento Bee
Davis voters will decide in November if they want to change the way City Council members are elected.

At a Tuesday night meeting, the Davis City Council voted 3-2 in favor of placing an advisory measure on the November ballot that will ask if voters want to abandon traditional plurality voting and replace it with choice voting.

Under plurality voting, the candidates with the most votes win council seats. In choice voting, candidates are ranked according to a voter's preference.

There are variations, but basically, if a voter's top preference doesn't garner enough votes the vote goes to the second choice, and so on.

Forms of choice voting are already in effect in other cities including Berkeley, San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. It is also used to determine national elections in Ireland and Australia.

Supporters of choice voting say it allows citizens to maximize their vote's effectiveness and doesn't allow a minority of voters to decide who wins.

"Under choice voting, a group of voters could get representation in proportion to their percentage of the vote," said David Moon, program director for FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization that advocates for voting changes, including choice voting.

Under a typical winner-take-all voting scenario, 51 percent of voters get 100 percent of the representation, Moon said. "The other 49 percent of voters could get shut out completely, he said.

Choice voting could allow a minority group or an underrepresented political party to win seats and ensure they have a voice, Moon said, and it could also discourage negative campaigning, as candidates will have an incentive to reach out for their opponents' second-choice votes.

Critics of choice voting say the nontraditional method could confuse voters and that only first-place votes should count.

Moon says choice voting is simple to understand.

"All the voter has to understand is how to rank things in order of preference, just like pizza toppings or ice cream flavors," he said.

Davis Mayor Ruth Asmundson and council member Sue Greenwald voted against placing the measure on the November ballot.

Greenwald said she is a proponent of choice voting, but doesn't think the November ballot measure will produce any clear results.

"The language is much too broad to give any meaningful direction," Greenwald said.

Choice voting has variations including at-large elections with ranked preferences, or district elections with instant runoffs. Greenwald prefers the latter.

The advisory ballot measure's language doesn't include any distinctions. In addition, Davis, which is currently classified as a general law city, would have to become a charter city in order to adopt a new form of voting; that would require a separate binding city vote or the passage of a state law that is currently stalled.

A group called Davis Citizens for Representation, which has advocated for choice voting, will launch a communitywide push to inform voters about the proposed change.

The group says past campaigns have shown that once voters know the details of choice voting, they are largely supportive of it.

"We're going to launch a large education campaign so Davis voters understand how choice voting can help represent the entire population," said Joseph Stewart, a spokesman for the group.

The campaign will include mailers, lawn signs and door-to-door visits, Stewart said.

The city of Davis' governance task force studied choice voting and made the recommendation to switch.

The panel said the current system of plurality voting may lead to the disenfranchisement of groups that cannot garner the votes needed to elect a candidate through the traditional method.