In 2000 and 2016 the Democratic presidential candidates who won the popular votes lost in the Electoral College and George Bush (the son) and Donald Trump became the presidents respectively. That has happened five times in United States presidential elections and since 1824 there has been a national debate about abolishing the Electoral College.
At the local level, we in DC have witnessed candidates who have won with slim pluralities and with DC having no runoff elections they assumed office with no mandates. In 1994 then Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was elected to a fourth term as mayor and the next year Ward 8 had a special election to fill his Council vacancy.
There were 21 candidates in that 1995 special election. 11 percent of the voters turned out and the winning candidate prevailed by a margin of two votes. The next year in the regular election that incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember was defeated by the candidate who came in second in the previous year.
Ward 8 has a history of multi-candidate elections and winners with small pluralities. In the 2011 special election for Ward 8 State Board of Education Member, there were nine candidates, 6 percent of the voters turned out and winning candidate received 33% of the votes cast. In the 2014 special election for Ward 8 State Board of Education Member, there were three candidates, 2.6 percent of the voters turned out and the winner received 48% of the votes cast. That incumbent was defeated in the 2016 regular election.
In 2015 there was a special Ward 8 Council election to fill the vacancy left by Marion Barry’s death. There were 13 candidates, 14 percent of the voter turned out and the winner received 27% of the votes cast. That incumbent councilmember was defeated for reelection the next year by the second-place finisher in the 2015 special election.
When candidates win with slim margins and without a majority of the votes, they have no mandates, the community does not unify behind them and the opposition to their reelections begin the day they are sworn in. Some community activists and leaders are not even interested in working with them or hoping that they do a good job for the people. They simply must be defeated because they won narrow victories.
There are jurisdictions throughout the nation that mandate a runoff election be held when no candidates receive a majority of the votes cast. DC does not have runoff elections but recently At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson introduced legislation that will establish Rank Choice Voting (RCV), also known as Instant Runoff Voting.
Rank Choice Voting allows voters to rank candidates by preference, meaning they can submit ballots that list not only their first-choice candidate, but also their second, third and so on. If a candidate does not win a majority (more than 50 percent) on the first count, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that candidate’s ballots are redistributed to the second choice candidate.
If a candidate still does not have a majority of the vote, the next lowest candidate is eliminated and the second-choice candidates of these votes are calculated. This continues until a candidate wins over 50 percent.
I highly commend her for introducing the legislation because it demonstrates what a deeply principled politician she is. Last year in the general election Ms. Henderson won 14.8 percent of the votes in a 24-candidate race, which qualified her for the second at-large council seat.
Most politicians and elected officials would be satisfied and supportive of a process that helped them get over the hump. But not Christina Henderson. After the election, she said that she was uncomfortable with having won with such a small number of votes and that she would introduce Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) legislation. She is a woman of her word. Put her in the Smithsonian.
I have been a supporter of RCV for over 20 years because not only does it guarantee that the winner of an election would receive a majority of the votes but it is a process that encourages minority candidates and injects civility in elections. When candidates are ranked by voters, the slogan that “every vote counts” takes on an even deeper concrete mathematical meaning. Also, if you are a candidate who wants to be a voter’s second choice, it helps if you not engage in negative campaigning.
On June 22nd of this year in the primary elections, New York City used Ranked Choice Voting for the first time and according to the pollsters the voters loved the process. The winner of the Democratic primary for mayor is Eric Adams, who if elected this November will be the second African American mayor of New York City.
Councilmember Henderson’s RCV bill has been co-sponsored by six of her Council colleagues and I hope and pray that the majority of the Councilmembers hang tough in their support of this needed progressive electoral reform.
Realizing that outside of DC’s circle of political activists, few residents are familiar or even heard of RCV, I urge everyone to visit fairvote.org. Also, community organizations should place discussions of RCV on their meeting agendas. When New York City adopted RCV there was a massive public education campaign leading up to the election. The voters of DC deserve the same.
Philip Pannell is a long time Ward 8 community activist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.