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Philly mayoral election struggles to pick popular winner
An “instant runoff” would have produced a majority winner in a single election; instead, the “plurality-wins-all” election delivers a weak winner’s mandate
Last week, the next mayor of Philadelphia was decided in a crowded Democratic primary with nine candidates. Using a single-shot plurality election, with no runoff to ensure the winner was supported by a popular majority, the front running candidate was Cherelle Parker with only a third -- 32.6 percent -- of the vote. The Democratic primary itself only saw a third of registered Philly Democrats voting.
The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection is the sixth largest metropolis in the United States, with 1.6 million people. One of the nation’s oldest cities, it is electing its 100th mayor in its storied history. It’s an important bellwether city, the population center of a battleground state in presidential and U.S. Senate contests. As it is a heavily Democratic city, it’s a near-certainty that Cherelle Parker will trounce her Republican opponent in next November’s general election, becoming Philadelphia’s first ever woman mayor. But is it a problem that Philly’s next mayor won the decisive Democratic primary even though two-thirds of a small primary electorate voted for someone else?
Philadelphia could solve this democratic shortcoming by requiring a second runoff election among the top two finishers. But that would mean waiting weeks to decide the Democratic primary and the eventual winner, and finalists would have to run a second time which gives an advantage to candidates who can quickly raise a lot more campaign money. And in the last three decades of federal election runoffs in congressional primaries, turnout on average in the 276 runoffs has declined by nearly 40%.
The better solution for future elections would be to follow the lead of New York City, which in 2021 transitioned its primary elections to an “instant runoff” that allows voters to rank their candidates, in effect indicating their runoff choices at the same time as their top candidate. A charter amendment establishing RCV for primaries won support from 73% of New Yorkers, and an exit survey after its first use showed support has risen even higher.
If Philadelphia had used RCV, the Democratic nominee may have been the same as with the current “plurality-wins-all” method. But the winner would have finished with a majority of the vote and a much stronger popular mandate.
Mayors without a mandate
It’s really remarkable that so many large cities still use a backward plurality method to select the chief executive of their city. Philadelphia is not the only one. Many of our nation’s leading cities are electing new mayors this year. But the winners in many of these contests may not have support from a majority of voters.
In Chicago, in a nine candidate field, the top two finishers had 33 percent and 22 percent of the vote after all the other contenders split the vote. Denver voters advanced two candidates to a June runoff from a 17-candidate field, each with less than 25 percent. Houston this fall faces its own fractured 12-candidate mayoral contest, followed by a December runoff if no candidate wins a majority.
The large candidate fields in Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Houston give voters lots of choices. But when a dozen people seek the same office, the winner-take-all rules can result in spoiler candidates, split votes and non-majority winners. That makes it difficult for leaders to claim a mandate, and for a city to come together around a common vision.
It’s not just a crisis caused by low plurality winners and unrepresentative outcomes. Voters are forced to vote strategically instead of choosing their honest favorite. Potentially ground-breaking candidates drop out instead of splitting the vote or playing spoiler. And in Chicago, Denver, Houston and other cities with runoffs, voters also have to come back to the polls a second time instead of picking a mayor in just one election. In reality, many of those “exhausted voters” don’t return and turnout plunges.
Ranked-choice voting is a proven fix to all these problems. The largest cities in seven states, from New York City to Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, elect their mayors and city councils with RCV. Most do it in one RCV election, when turnout is highest and voters can assess the full field. If your first-choice candidate doesn’t have a shot at winning, your vote simply counts for your next highest-ranked candidate. No more strategic voting or vote-splitting: If your favorite candidate has a chance, your vote stays with them. If not, your vote won’t play spoiler — it will simply count for your next-favorite choice.
And fewer expensive, divisive runoffs: Instead of voters having to trudge back to the polls a second time, your vote will just end up counting for the finalist ranked highest on your ballot. Even if a city opts to keep a delayed runoff, voters can have better choices by using RCV to narrow a large field to four or five candidates, and then using it again to pick a majority winner among those finalists.
As for those negative mudslinging campaigns that so frustrate voters today? RCV won’t completely end them, but it rewards candidates who run more positive, issues-focused campaigns — after all, it’s better to get second choices from your opponent’s supporters than to tear your main opponent down. That goes hand in hand with candidates in RCV elections commenting to the effect that, “If I saw a house with a yard sign for another candidate, I would knock on that door anyway and say, ‘I see you are supporting one of the other candidates, but I would like to be your second-ranked candidate, and here’s why.’” This dynamic rewards engagement between the candidates and voters.
RCV is growing quickly across the nation, including use in two states and dozens of cities and counties. Voters say they like it. More women, first-time candidates and candidates of color run for office in RCV contests — and win. Chicago and Denver’s runoff finalists, as well as Philadelphia’s major hopefuls, are among a slew of this year’s mayoral candidates who back RCV.
The future of great American cities shouldn’t be decided by the failings of our antiquated election methods. Voters should feel empowered when they leave the ballot box, not stuck with a candidate they don’t really like. These things are possible with ranked-choice voting.
RCV continues to surge forward across the nation
Meanwhile, with summer just around the corner, ranked choice voting is having another big moment, with impending use in some of America’s largest and most influential jurisdictions.
On June 20, Arlington County will become the first Virginia community to use RCV in a state-run primary, and even better – they’re using proportional RCV. It’s thrilling to see FairVote’s signature reform being used right next to our nation’s capital. This is a step towards building support for the Fair Representation Act in Congress.
Proportional RCV is already making headlines in the D.C. papers, meaning national politicians and their staff are learning how it can improve our elections. In recent weeks, Arlington’s proportional RCV contest has been covered in the Washington Post, DCist, and more.
Just one week later on June 27, the nation’s largest city will hold RCV primaries for the second time. This is the first election since New York City’s council seats were redistricted – while it will be a quieter election than 2021 without any citywide offices on the ballot, we will see at least a few competitive, crowded races.
We already know New Yorkers support this reform because they’ve told us so. After the last NYC elections, a whopping majority of voters reported that RCV is easy to use (95%) and that they want to keep using it (77%).
Notably, two of the candidates who competed in New York’s first RCV mayoral primaries went on to be some of its biggest advocates: Maya Wiley wrote an op-ed shortly after the race explaining RCV’s benefits for women and communities of color (NYC elected its first-ever majority-women city council in 2021). Andrew Yang has made RCV a central part of his mission and joined the FairVote Action board. Even though they didn’t win, Wiley and Yang still recognized the benefits of RCV.
We expect more than 15 cities to use RCV this fall, including the largest cities in Utah, Minnesota, and Maine. You can see where RCV is used across the country on this FairVote resource page.
But our aspirations can be higher: we can reimagine voting as synonymous with ranking candidates across the United States for all of our elections. For an indication of where the nation is heading, the US now has some 90 colleges and universities from coast to coast using RCV. Young people are particularly hungry for the greater choices and freedom that RCV brings to our politics. The progress in cities is only one key indicator that we can change politics for the better.
Rob Richie @Rob_Richie
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