Kansas City’s April primary and subsequent runoff election next week for mayor show us once again that our process is not only outdated — it’s ineffectual.
There’s a better way to run this election, or any other one. But before describing the better way, you first need to understand why the method being used now needs to change. And let’s be clear that the following is a critique of the process, not the candidates.
Some basics to begin: Shouldn’t an election be an opportunity for the electorate to determine the will of the majority? The answer is clearly yes. Then doesn’t determining the will of the majority mean you should have elections that yield majority winners — winners who get 50% plus one or more of the votes cast? Again, the answer is yes.
And if you agreed with both of these answers (which you should), then you need to recognize we’re not meeting those objectives. That means you have to ask: Why aren’t we doing that?
The answer is that we are failing to leverage existing technology for our elections.
Here’s how: In the April primary, there were 11 candidates for mayor. In the process used, the two candidates emerging for the June runoff were not guaranteed to do so with a combined majority. In other words, the two top candidates might have less than a majority — which means the majority of voters will be dissatisfied with the result.
Such was the case in April. City Council members Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas received just over a combined 40% of the vote. One potential negative of such a result is that those who voted for candidates eliminated in the primary may be so disheartened that they decline to vote in the runoff.
Neither is the opposite result appealing. The initial election might give Kansas City a single clear majority winner, but the city will still have to spend up to $500,00 on the runoff election. That’s what happened in 2015.
The good news is we don’t have to elect mayors this way. Kansas City could be doing what Minneapolis or the state of Maine do, using a process made possible by current technology: ranked choice voting. Exit polling shows voters find ranked choice to be simpler and easier than the current primary/runoff system.
Were Kansas City using ranked choice, voters would assign ranks to their top choices among candidates (usually up to three, given current voting machine limitations, but that capability is expanding).
If one of those candidates got 50% plus one or better, that person would be the winner, just like in any other election. But if no single candidate gets a simple majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots that picked that eliminated candidate first would move to the voters’ next choice marked on their ballots. New results are then calculated, and the process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes.
In other words, ranked choice means voters are not limited to one choice. They get to vote for their favorite choices, and have to show up at the polls only once. Voters would be done with voting in April with a majority winner determined the night of the election. Kansas Citians could have the money that would otherwise be spent on the runoff to use elsewhere (pothole repair, perhaps?).
The good news is that a bill was introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives’ 2019 session to require ranked choice voting in local elections. If you agree that this would be a better way to conduct our elections, then call your state representative and your state senator, too. Tell them you want a better way to vote. Then contact your Missouri friends and family, and ask them to call their own representatives.
They’ll be glad you did, because they’re going to want to vote using ranked choice voting, too.
Larry R. Bradley is a retired U.S. Army officer with a political science degree from Missouri State and an MBA from the University of Tennessee. He operates the website TheCenterStrikesBack.org.