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Turnout is Light for local voting

William Stonegardner, 81, is shown how to put his paper ballot in the ballot box by election judge Anna Ryales at his polling place on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at the Carondelet branch of the St. Louis Public Library on Michigan Avenue. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — A group pushing to change how the city of St. Louis elects its leaders received $75,000 from an election science nonprofit to fund its signature-gathering effort to place the measure on the March 2020 ballot.

A new group called STL Approves wants to change the St. Louis election system to institute “approval voting” for the municipal offices of mayor, president of the board of aldermen, comptroller and members of the board of aldermen.

Approval voting allows voters to vote for as many candidates in a race as they want. The two candidates with the most votes would advance to a runoff election.

The approval system would replace the city’s existing March municipal party primary with a nonpartisan election. The runoff would replace the April general municipal election. Because of the Democratic Party’s dominance in the city, the March primary has become the de facto election and the April election almost a formality for candidates.

STL Approves is being pushed by Tyler Schlichenmeyer, a biomedical engineering graduate student and research assistant at Washington University. Among its supporters is St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who narrowly lost her 2017 bid for mayor in a crowded primary field.

Schlichenmeyer said he and volunteers have already collected 1,000 signatures. They need 10,000 signatures and hope to get 20,000 by mid-November to place the measure before voters in the March 2020 Presidential primary.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said she is not opposed to nonpartisan local elections and a runoff.

“I support exploring changes to the election process — election results should reflect the will of those who vote and should be as inclusive as possible,” she said in an email Tuesday.

Funding the effort so far is the Center for Election Science, which lists a Redding, Calif., address in campaign finance disclosures. But its director, Aaron Hamlin, said the organization is managed by remote employees. He works out of Chicago, and its philanthropy director Kirsten Elliott is based out of Salt Lake City but is moving to Arkansas soon. They were in town Tuesday for an STL Approves fundraiser.

The Center for Election Science has been around since early 2011 and is dedicated to changing how elections are run in the U.S. Hamlin, who called the prevailing plurality voting systems “horrendous,” said the group studied several voting methods before landing on approval voting as one that could be easily implemented and that simulations suggest will elect more “consensus-style” candidates.

“Approval voting does a much better job of electing voters’ honest favorites,” Elliott said.

The Center for Election Science posts its donor lists online, and Hamlin said its primary funder has been the Open Philanthropy Project. That group is mainly bankrolled by Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and Asana, and his wife, Cari Tuna. Moskovitz was a major donor to U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Skeptics of approval voting point out it has been adopted by only one city so far. Voters in Fargo, N.D., approved an approval-voting initiative, which the Center for Election Science helped fund, in November. Fargo, however, has yet to hold a municipal election using the new system.

Skeptics also wonder if voters will actually use their multiple votes since they can’t indicate preferences. Candidates could tell their supporters to not vote for their opponents and the system would be little different.

But Schlichenmeyer said the top-two runoff would give voters a natural incentive to choose at least their favorite two candidates. And while it hasn’t been used in government elections, Hamlin and Elliott said it has been studied by political scientists for decades.

“Even if most voters choose only one candidate, which is possible, it’s still very important that they have the opportunity to choose more than one when it’s necessary,” Hamlin said.

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Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291