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Government, Politics & Issues

Proposition D Seeks To Remake St. Louis Elections

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File Photo / Carolina Hidalgo
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St. Louis Public Radio
Under a ballot initiative known as Proposition D, some city offices would become nonpartisan, and voters could select as many candidates as they want in the primary.

For centuries, candidates for St. Louis mayor, aldermanic president, comptroller and aldermen have run in partisan primaries in March and a general election in April.

But the city last elected a Republican mayor in 1943. And in 2011, Fred Heitert, a Republican who had represented southwest St. Louis for 32 years, lost his reelection bid to Democrat Larry Arnowitz, making the Board of Aldermen entirely Democratic. (Two aldermen elected as independents ran for reelection as Democrats.)

With the city leaning so heavily Democratic, the races are now almost always decided in crowded primaries, which means narrow margins of victory and winners sometimes without the support of a majority.

In an effort to elect candidates with a broader base of support, a group called STL Approves is backing Proposition D, which is on the ballot Nov. 3. It makes the mayor, comptroller, board president and aldermen nonpartisan offices. Voters could select as many candidates as they want in March, a method of holding elections known as approval voting. The top two candidates would run against each other in April.

“In just the last five years, we’ve had 13 different elections where candidates have been elected with less than 50% of the vote, often being elected with less than 40%, or even 30%, of the vote,” said Mallory Rusch, campaign manager for STL Approves.

Approval voting would allow voters to focus on issues, rather than candidates, Rusch said.

“Two similar candidates who are running against each other are at a huge disadvantage,” she said. “Even if voters really like their platform, they're forced to choose between the two different candidates. And so the support for that platform gets really diluted. Prop D makes sure that candidates with the best ideas are ones that rise to the top and ultimately win the election.”

Such an outcome is possible if everyone is on the same page, said Jack Nagel, a retired political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has helped various associations implement approval voting for internal elections.

“It may be that some people only approve of one candidate,” Nagel said. “But if there are genuinely two or more candidates that you think would do a good job, but you only vote for one of them, if everybody does that the system collapses to the conventional voting and you may get narrowly supported winners again.”

Gautum Dutta, an elections attorney in California, agrees. He also worries about the unintended consequences of making the primary an important but non-deciding election.

“Since you’re no longer picking the de facto winner, there will be lower voter turnout,” he said. “And that would mean that you would have a less diverse electorate. It would be wealthier and disproportionately white.”

That potential impact on voter turnout was one of the reasons the city’s Aldermanic Black Caucus issued a statement opposing Proposition D, said Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, the caucus’ secretary.

“If you only have 80,000 voters, and 60,000 voters vote in the primary, 20,000 are going to vote only in the next election,” he said. “When something is not good for St. Louis, it's terrible for African Americans. So Prop D is not good for St. Louis.”

Rusch said research shows nonpartisan voting improves the chances that a Black candidate gets elected, but acknowledged she did not know about the impact of approval voting.

The Black Caucus is also opposed to nonpartisan elections, saying Proposition D would essentially eliminate the Democratic Party.

The city’s Democratic Central Committee did not take an official position on the proposition. Its former chair, Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler, told St. Louis on the Air in August that he believed the changes would make the party more relevant because “in a nonpartisan election, folks need the Democratic Party to tell them who the Democrats are.”

There are also concerns about Proposition D’s impact on ballot access for third parties.

There are five political parties in Missouri — Republican, Democratic, Green, Constitutional and Libertarian — that appear on the ballot automatically in every election. But if an established party’s candidate fails to get 2% of the votes cast in two straight elections in a county, it loses established party status in that county.

Proposition D takes away three opportunities for third parties in St. Louis to reach that goal, said Don Fitz, the outreach coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis.

“And so it would be much, much more difficult for any small party, whether it's the Green Party or the Libertarian Party to maintain ballot status,” he said. “And it's another form of favoritism for the Democrats and Republicans to do for themselves.”

The city’s Republican Party is taking a wait-and-see approach to whether Prop D will improve their chances of being elected, said its chairwoman, Mary Theresa McLean.

“Anytime you're introducing something novel and new, you're always going to get pushback,” she said. “However, sometimes it takes novel and new to really change things. And so I don't want to discount this.”

Proposition D requires a simple majority to pass. If it does, the first elections under the new system would be in March 2021.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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