On Sept. 1, the city of Phoenix will be holding its regularly-scheduled City Council election for the even-numbered council districts, and in Districts 6 and 8, more than two candidates are running, according to the City Clerk’s Web site. This means that a November runoff election is possible in those districts if no candidate gets 50 percent+1 of the September vote.
In District 6, the district formerly represented by Greg Stanton, and now by Sal DiCiccio, there are four candidates running, making a runoff more likely than in any of the other elections this fall. This “runoff potential” illustrates both a problem and an opportunity for voters to consider a change.
First, all elections (especially runoffs) come with a monetary cost. You might remember the City Clerk’s proposal to implement voting centers, an effort lauded by some for its ability to save costs, and spurned by others out of fear that too few voting centers would lead to lower voter turnout. The City Clerk has estimated that the proposal could save the city $250,000 per election. What they don’t mention, is that a single runoff election costs about $100,000 (the last time a runoff was held was in 2007, when two council seats were vacant. According to an e-mail exchange I had with an official in the City Clerk’s office, those runoffs combined cost $198,821).
Second, runoffs tend to decrease voter turnout (the 2007 runoffs were notable exceptions). That’s one heck of a deal for $100,000 in a city where voter turnout for a typical election lies somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Phoenix has about 600,000 voters, so on a really good day, a mere 180,000 people cast ballots. The runoff figures would typically be much lower.
These problems should be of major concern for Ahwatukee Foothills voters, (where people vote in high numbers) if only for the simple reason that local elections and the way they are run affect everyone. High costs and low citizen participation don’t make for healthy politics. A reform called ranked voting, for which I filed an initiative petition with the City Clerk last October, could solve both of these problems. It would cost the city less, streamline the voting process, and likely increase voter turnout.
The ranked voting concept is simple, and best explained by comparison to the runoff system we have now. A runoff is a kind of filter. If the candidate you liked before isn’t available, you have to pick somebody else. Ranked voting systems take that idea and run with it, by asking voters to make that decision in advance.
Imagine a pollster asking supporters of Sal DiCiccio, “Suppose I told you that he wasn’t running in the election on Sept. 1. Whom would you vote for then?” A ranked voting system asks voters to take that second choice and write it down along with their first. In fact, voters are allowed to rank all the available candidates in order this way. When the ballots are counted, ranks are assessed to determine which candidate was preferred by voters the most over all the others.
Different systems count the ranks differently. But regardless of how the ranks are counted, all systems are constructed basically the same way: voters go to the polls, rank their choices, turn in their ballot, and leave. Ballots can be tabulated by computer or by hand. There are no runoff elections.
This does come with a downside. Voters don’t get additional time between elections to think about which candidates they support. The ability of runoff elections to dynamically shrink the field of candidates is gone. On the other hand, early voting and vote-by-mail have increased voters’ opportunities to research candidates and make informed decisions by allowing them more time to vote. The City Clerk’s voting centers proposal also has the potential to increase turnout, if it is well-implemented. Taken together, a ranked voting system and the City Clerk’s reform might be the boost Phoenix elections need.
Until then, we’ll have to wait and see what happens this September. Early voting ends on Aug. 28. As for ranked voting proposals like mine, they won’t be implemented by one person alone, we’ll all have to work together.
Emerson French has lived in Ahwatukee Foothills for five years. He’ll be a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio this fall and is currently sponsoring an initiative for the city of Phoenix to implement a ranked voting system.