Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Orleans City Council Changes

Expounding on yesterday’s post, here’s how changing election rules could improve things in New Orleans.

Right now, there are seven members on the city council representing a population of over 350,000. Five of these seats are determined by districts drawn in traditional ways – generally encompassing large areas with tentacles reaching out to snag and concentrate certain neighborhoods or voting blocs. Two of the seats are considered “at large” seats, and make up the President and VP of the Council.

Here’s how the 5 district seats are determined: all qualifying candidates in a district participate in a single “non-partisan” primary. If no candidate wins 50%+ of the vote, a runoff is declared for the top two vote recipients. This means the city basically has to pay for two elections, and turnout can vary widely. The Mayor is elected in a similar way, and there will be a referendum in November allowing voters to move the At-Large seats to this type of election as well.

Under the existing rules, candidates for the most important positions on the City Council ran in the same election – every voter got two votes, and the two top vote recipients get elected, provided they captured 25%+ of the vote. If they didn’t get to the magic number, runoffs were employed. Again, that’s setting up another election, changing voter turnout, and forcing two-time voters to decide between candidates who may not have captured a quarter of the first time voters.

The new proposal changes that slightly, basically splitting the At-Large field, requiring a primary election followed by a runoff if no one gets 50%+ in the primary. Still two elections, and now candidates will have to declare which “at large” seat they’re running for. Or something. It is “better” in that it makes more sense than the current threshold of 25% support. Here’s what I would do to eliminate the runoff elections and increase the value of every citizen’s vote. It would require uses of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation.

One: Move the Mayoral election to IRV. This means when citizens vote for Mayor, they list their first choice as #1, their second choice as #2, their third choice as #3 and so on. If their first choice candidate doesn’t get enough votes to win, that candidate is eliminated, and the vote goes to their second choice. If the second choice doesn’t win, the vote goes to their third choice, etc. This continues until one candidate gets over 50% of the vote. One election, one turnout, one conclusion.

Two: City Council elections become MMP. This requires doubling the number of district seats on the City Council, and giving each voter two slates within their district election. The first slate is the actual candidates from that district. Again, IRV is employed to determine who will represent the district outright.

The second slate exists for all political parties within the city, and the voter can cast one vote for their party of their choice. It does not have to be the same as the party their candidates belong to.

When the votes are tallied, the five district seats go to the five district winners. The other five seats are assigned based on the total proportion of votes by party. Those proportions would include the district winners.

For example, this being New Orleans, let’s say that all 5 district seats went to Democratic candidates. Under the current system, that’s 100% of the representation. Under the MMP system that’s only 50% of the representation.

The Board of Elections then looks at the number of party votes from across the city. Let’s say that 70% of voters, city-wide, cast their party vote for the Democratic Party, 20% cast their vote for the Republican Party, and 10% cast their vote for the Green Party. This would mean you add 2 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 1 Green Party representative to fill those other 5 city council seats.

Now, I know what you’re saying – that puts a lot of power in the hands of Party level decision makers. But have you ever been to a meeting with those decision makers, locally? A few extra bodies in the room would be enough to change the whole decision making process – this is the local level we’re talking about, where your voice and participation can have the greatest affect. Setting up a system in this way gives you more access to your own governance, not less. Set the rules for having an official political party at a reasonable level, and you increase the diversity of your political options instead of shoehorning them into two lackluster choices.

Pursuant to that, another advantage is that the political diversity can now lead to results in government. How many Republicans or Green Party followers are simply disenfranchised at the local level in Orleans Parish? While your partisan mind might thing “good riddance,” consider your own disenfranchisement at the state and local levels in mostly Republican Louisiana. The point of the exercise is to make your vote count and your representative government more responsive. You can’t do that sort of thing without guaranteeing the rights of others who disagree with you.

As far as the At Large seats are concerned, I think setting up a 10 member council would eliminate the need for them. Elected officials could appoint a council President Pro Tem and VP out of their own membership at that point. Since so many “At Large” seats came about as a result of redistricting and segregating neighborhoods, I wouldn’t shed one tear to consign that concept to the dustbin. .

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