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Democrats split on overhauling St. Louis elections, including removing party labels

Democrats split on overhauling St. Louis elections, including removing party labels


ST. LOUIS — City Democratic politicians are split over a Nov. 3 ballot issue that would drastically change the rules of the game for future St. Louis elections, beginning with the pivotal race for mayor just a few months away.

Under Proposition D, candidates would run on a nonpartisan basis, with the top two vote-getters in the March primary moving on to an April general election runoff. For generations, the April vote has been an afterthought in the heavily Democratic city as Democratic nominees routinely cruise to victory.

The proposition also would introduce something called approval voting, in which residents could vote for as many primary candidates as they want. Backers say the changes would ensure that candidates take office with a broad base of support.

“This is the only way to make sure that the person who gets elected is elected by a majority of voters,” said one prominent supporter, Treasurer Tishaura Jones.

In March 2017, Lyda Krewson got just 32% of the vote in the seven-person Democratic mayoral primary, with Jones finishing a close second with more than 30%. Krewson then easily won the general election.

Last year, Lewis Reed was reelected as aldermanic president after winning his four-way primary with just 36% of the total.

Reed, a leading opponent of the proposition, says allowing people to vote for multiple candidates in the primary creates the potential for the one who is actually the first choice of a majority to fail to make it to the general election.

“It would disenfranchise voters,” he argues.

Reed also points out that in many other Democratic primary races in the city over the years, nominees running against smaller fields of rivals have won a majority of the vote.

“It only comes into play with a whole bunch of candidates in the race,” Reed said, referring to winners lacking a majority.

‘D’ is for democracy

The proposal, with the “D” in the title shorthand for democracy, made it on the ballot through an initiative petition drive.

Among those joining Jones in supporting the proposition are Cori Bush, the Democratic 1st Congressional District nominee; city Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler; state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed; and state Reps. Steve Butz and Rasheen Aldridge.

Some members of the Board of Aldermen’s progressive faction also are in favor, such as Megan Green, Christine Ingrassia, Dan Guenther and Bret Narayan.

The opposition besides Reed includes 12 ward-level aldermen, including the board’s 10-member African American caucus. And on Friday, the city Democratic Central Committee announced its opposition. Sen. Karla May, the committee chair, said about 70% of the panel takes that position.

Backers say having candidates for St. Louis’ municipal-type offices — mayor, comptroller, aldermanic president and alderman — run without party labels brings the city in line with all other municipalities in Missouri and a majority nationwide.

“It’s time for the city to come into the 21st century in our election process,” Jones said.

Listing party affiliation, Reed counters, “tells you something about the core values of that candidate” and it shouldn’t be discarded.

Supporters and opponents disagree on whether going nonpartisan would reduce the Democratic Party’s significance in the city.

Meanwhile, the city’s county-type offices such as treasurer, recorder and sheriff, which are set up under state law, would remain elected on a partisan basis in the August-November election cycle.

Jones, a candidate in next week’s election for a third term as treasurer, says she seriously will consider running again for mayor in a few months against Krewson, who is seeking reelection.

Jones said she believed that she would have had a better chance of winning in 2017 had there been a runoff.

Krewson, Spencer positions

Krewson spokesman Jacob Long, when asked about the mayor’s position on the proposition, said she isn’t opposed to a runoff “because she believes in her many accomplishments in office and is confident voters will remember that at the polls.”

However, Long said Krewson doesn’t support approval voting, noting that it could allow a voter to vote for every candidate in the primary. Long said the mayor also believes Prop D would weaken the Democratic Party. But he wouldn’t say how Krewson would vote on the proposal.

Another mayoral candidate, Alderman Cara Spencer, said she had mixed feelings about the proposal but that she’ll vote for it “with reservations.”

Spencer said she likes the idea of a runoff but that approval voting is “a large unknown” because only one city in the United States — Fargo, North Dakota — has enacted it, just two years ago.

And, like opponents, Spencer said she worries that some voters would be confused by how the new system would work. Spencer also complained that Reed didn’t ask the Board of Aldermen to discuss the petition proposal and to consider proposing amendments.

In response, Reed said Spencer could have brought it up herself. “I don’t think it needs to be amended,” Reed said. “It needs to be defeated outright” at the polls.

Some aldermen believe that Reed, who finished third in the 2017 mayoral race, also might run for mayor next year. He declined to discuss whether that’s a possibility.

Supporters say another benefit of the proposition would be to reduce the significance of so-called spoiler candidates that peel off votes from some leading contenders.

They also say the scheduled reduction by half of the city’s 28 wards set to go into effect for the 2023 election will increase the likelihood of multiple candidates running in aldermanic races and the benefit of approval voting.

Opponents, meanwhile, said candidates’ newfound need to run serious primary and general-election races will spur additional pressure to raise campaign donations and lead to more special-interest influence.

The campaign has been low-key, with neither side running TV ads.

STL Approves, Prop D supporters’ campaign committee, reported raising more than $234,000 through Oct. 9. Most of it, $200,000, came from the Center for Election Science, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to changing how elections are run.

Mallory Rusch, STL Approves’ campaign manager, said most of the committee’s spending was for the petition drive. No formal opposition campaign committee has been set up.

Under the proposition, if only two candidates sign up to run for a particular office, they would compete against each other in the primary and general elections.

Rusch said the measure calls for that because drafters worried that eliminating one of the two votes in such a situation would create an incentive to try to keep potential candidates out of a race.

The measure calls for vacancies for the three citywide offices covered to be filled in special elections using the same nonpartisan approval voting process.

But Rusch said the city charter would continue to require nominees for ward aldermanic vacancies to be picked by the city Democratic and Republican committees and to run in a partisan special election. The ballot proposal would change city ordinances, not the charter.

Fargo’s experience

Fargo, a city of about 125,000, held its first election under approval voting in June when seven candidates ran for two seats on the city commission, each of which were elected on a citywide basis without a primary.

Turnout increased to nearly 17,744 votes from 9,300 for a similar election in 2018, said Mike Montplaisir, who administers elections for Cass County.

But he said he believed that the increased participation primarily was due to the fact that the vote was held entirely by mail in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

He said voters cast votes for an average of 2.25 candidates, just a bit higher than the two candidates they would have been able to vote for under the old system.

Mark Schlinkmann • 314-340-8265 @markschlinkmann on Twitter

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