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Antonio French: St. Louis' election recent history underscores the folly of Prop D

Antonio French: St. Louis' election recent history underscores the folly of Prop D

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St. Louis City mayoral candidates 2017

Democrats who ran for St. Louis mayor in 2017: (top row, from left) Jeffrey Boyd, Antonio French, Bill Haas, Tishaura Jones, Lyda Krewson; (bottom row, from left) Jimmie Matthews and Lewis Reed. Republicans who ran for mayor: (bottom row, middle to bottom row, right) Andrew Jones, Andrew Karandzieff and James Osher.

One man, one vote. Or “one person, one vote,” to adopt the more inclusive modern phrasing. Cited in numerous landmark civil rights cases to expand and protect voting rights for African-Americans, it is a bedrock principle of modern American democracy, with the Electoral College being its most obvious exception. But that most basic, fundamental tenet of democracy will no longer be the rule in the city of St. Louis if backers of Proposition D are successful.

Prop D would radically change how local elections are conducted in St. Louis. Instead of having a primary election to determine the party candidates and a general election to determine the ultimate winner of the office, Prop D would mandate a non-partisan election with the two highest vote-getters running head-to-head in a runoff election. This part is good and where the proposal should have stopped. In a city where the candidate who wins the Democratic primary always wins, the general election is nothing more than a formality, an expensive one for taxpayers.

But Prop D goes well beyond establishing runoff elections for mayor, comptroller, President of the Board of Aldermen, and aldermen. If Prop D becomes law, people can vote for as many candidates as they want in the initial election. And this is where the problem is.

Prop D opens the door to political gamesmanship and vote nullification.

Supporters of Prop D point to the last mayoral election. Lyda Krewson won a seven-person Democratic primary in which less than 30% of voters even bothered to participate, with just 32% of the vote or a few more than 17,000 votes. If St. Louis had had simple runoff elections in 2017, Krewson would have been required to face her nearest competitor, treasurer Tishaura Jones, in a two-woman election in April. That would have been a good thing for the city, requiring the mayor to win her seat with at least 50% of the vote. But that’s not what Prop D offers.

Prop D would have allowed Krewson’s supporters to select not only Krewson, but also the person they would have most wanted her to run against in April. If the 32% of voters who voted for Krewson also voted for perennial candidate Jimmie Matthews, with the idea that of course Krewson would easily beat Matthews in the second round, then Jones would never have the opportunity for a head-to-head contest.

Don’t think voters are that sophisticated? Then you don’t know St. Louis political history.

Let’s rewind back to the mid-1990s. St. Louis had elected its first Black mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr. Despite a slew of successes, including bringing the Rams to St. Louis and leading voter-approved tax increases that saved Forest Park and provided a new stream of revenue for ward improvements, South Side voters wanted Bosley out. So in 1997 they voted en masse for a man who had never held political office before, former police chief Clarence Harmon. 

Harmon was also Black, but he was not the choice of the Black community. In actuality, he wasn’t the white community’s preference either, but he would serve a purpose, and that purpose was to unseat Bosley. At the time of Harmon’s next election in 2001, South Side voters completed the maneuver and elected Francis Slay, St. Louis’ first white mayor since it started electing Black mayors. Harmon, the incumbent mayor, won less than five percent of the vote. Ouch. No African-American has won the seat since.

But you don’t have to go back decades. Rewind just a few weeks. Democratic socialist Cori Bush’s defeat of longtime Democratic Congressman Lacy Clay in August was aided by disgruntled South Side voters still upset with Clay over his redistricting double-cross of then-Congressman Russ Carnahan that left Carnahan without a seat and banished south St. Louis to the majority-Black 1st Congressional District. In August, Bush won conservative South Side wards, including wards 12, 16 and 23, which also gave Donald Trump his highest numbers in the city in 2016. Payback is a bitch.

But perhaps the worst thing about Prop D, a proposal marketed as improving city elections and ending pointless partisan general elections, is that if just two candidates run for alderman in March, they have to run against each other again in April, regardless of the results. Same for mayor, comptroller and President of the Board of Aldermen. Talk about waste. 

Runoff elections are a good idea. But Prop D goes well beyond and provides ample opportunity to suppress minority representation and nullify votes. Voters should vote no and demand a simplified run-off election proposal.

Antonio French, owner and publisher of the news website MetroSTL.com, formerly represented the 21st Ward as a St. Louis alderman.

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