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Effort underway to repeal ‘approval voting’ in St. Louis, replace it with new system

Sharon Tyus 2019

St. Louis Alderman Sharon Tyus, seen here on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

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ST. LOUIS — An effort will be launched Friday at the Board of Aldermen to repeal the nonpartisan “approval voting” system used for the first time in last year’s city election and to replace it with another new approach.

The move, led by Alderman Sharon Tyus, already has picked up the support of Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Also backing the effort are at least nine members of the 12-person aldermanic African American caucus, according to Alderman Pam Boyd, caucus chairwoman.

Tyus on Friday will introduce two measures. One would repeal the existing law, under which residents vote for as many nonpartisan candidates for an office in a March primary as they “approve” of — with the top two moving on to a runoff in the April general election.

City voters adopted the new system at the November 2020 election after activists got it on the ballot through an initiative petition campaign. Despite opposition from the city Democratic Party and a majority of aldermen, the measure — called Proposition D — got the support of more than 68% of voters.

The other Tyus bill would return to holding partisan primary and general elections, but add a runoff in situations in which no one gets at least 50% of the vote in a primary with more than two candidates. In other words, there could be three elections instead of two in certain races.

Under her proposal, the municipal primary would move to February, the new primary runoff would take place in March and an April general election would feature party nominees and any independent candidates who qualify by petition.

That’s aimed at addressing one issue raised by Proposition D supporters. They complained about past multi-candidate primaries in which Democratic nominees earned less than a majority, then easily won general election races in the heavily Democratic city.

Tyus, of the 1st Ward, said Thursday that the new system was confusing to voters when they passed it in 2020 and when they began voting under it last year.

“I don’t think people understood what they were doing,” she said. “A lot of people did not know what they were voting on.”

Among other things, she said it made no sense that candidates in two-person races were pitted against each other in the March primary and both advanced to the April general election.

“It was just wasting time and money,” she said.

She also said the public deserves to know what party a candidate is affiliated with.

“I don’t like being told I can’t be a Democrat” on the ballot, she said.

The repeal effort was attacked by LaShana Lewis, board chair of the Show Me Integrity Education Fund, one of the groups that pushed for passage in 2020.

“Politicians are supposed to serve the will of the people, especially for a decision made by 68% of voters,” Lewis said in a statement. “Protecting Proposition D is critical for an accountable, equitable election system that gives winners a mandate to govern.”

Under the city charter, the Board of Aldermen is allowed to change or repeal ordinances adopted through initiative petition campaigns — like Proposition D — after they are in effect for a year.

However, such aldermanic measures require support from a two-thirds majority of the board, or 20 members, to pass. Bills normally need backing from a simple majority, 15, to win approval.

Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, who supported the passage of Proposition D, declined through a spokesman to comment on the repeal effort. If Jones vetoed either of Tyus’ bills, the same 20-vote standard needed to pass them would be required to override the veto.

Tyus alleged that progressives involved in the Proposition D campaign formulated it to help Jones win last year’s mayoral race. Tyus, who also supported Jones’ mayoral bid, said Jones didn’t need the voting system changes in D to win.

“I don’t like writing something for one person,” Tyus said.

Benjamin Singer, a Show Me Integrity leader who used to work for Jones, denied that it was put together to help Jones and noted that the new system also applied to races for alderman and comptroller last year.

The board may have a relatively short window of time to take action to repeal D.

That’s because another proposition on the upcoming April 5 ballot contains a provision requiring voter approval for any future aldermanic bill changing the method of voting for municipal offices.

The new measure, called Proposition R, also got on the ballot via a petition process pushed by many of the people behind D.

Its main provision is to turn over aldermanic redistricting to an independent commission, although supporters now say they don’t want it to be used until the next reapportionment after the 2030 census.

But unlike D, Proposition R is a proposed city charter amendment and couldn’t be repealed or modified later by aldermen.

Tyus also said the short time frame between the November 2020 adoption of the proposition and the beginning of candidate filing for the 2021 election a few weeks later caused “much bewilderment and confusion” for candidates, election officials and citizens in general.

An aldermanic supporter of Proposition D, Megan Green of the 15th Ward, said even though it’s not legally required, “the right thing to do would be to send it back to voters” if the board ends up approving either of Tyus’ bills.

Green said she could support considering changing the aspect of Proposition D which requires candidates in two-candidate races to run against each other twice — first in the primary and then in the general election.

But she said even if aldermen decided to remove that requirement, voters should have the final say on it.

In the 5th Ward aldermanic race last year, incumbent Tammika Hubbard overwhelmingly led challenger James Page in the March primary but both advanced to the April general election. Page prevailed in that vote.

Green also argued that Tyus’ measure to set up a new February-March-April election cycle could be passed only through a charter amendment requiring voter approval.

Updated at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13. 

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