Hartmann: Overhaul St. Louis' Pitiful Election System in November

St. Louis could make a major change to its voting system.
St. Louis could make a major change to its voting system. PAUL SABLEMAN/FLICKR

The manner in which St. Louis conducts its elections is to democracy what the sundial is to keeping time.

It works technically, but why would you possibly use it?

I know we cling to our traditions in St. Louis to a fault — and I want to be clear that nothing that follows in any way demeans or diminishes the importance of toasted ravioli — but perhaps the most meaningless passage in the local statutes reads as follows:

"The General Municipal Election in the City of St. Louis is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in April in each odd-numbered year."

The real-world translation reads: "On the second Tuesday of April in years no one else is voting, the city of St. Louis will conduct an 'election' that absolutely, positively has no meaning."

Setting aside the peculiar detail that St. Louis doesn't just vote for its mayor, comptroller, aldermanic president and aldermen when everyone else — including the city — has elections in August and November, there's one other small problem with the notion of a "general" election: The city only has one political party.

This is a fact, not an editorial statement. I don't think it's a good thing, by the way, but the Democratic Party is the only game in town. Now if I might speak to city Republicans: I don't mean this to offend either of you, but it's a one-party town to a fault.

The 2021 election in the city will mark precisely a half century since last a Republican won citywide election. That was Aldermanic President Joe Badaracco in 1971, or, if you prefer, the year the floppy disk was invented.

The corollary of this is that everything rides on the primary election held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March in each odd numbered year. Whatever.

Here's what you get when you combine a one-party system with Americans' penchant not to vote and lots of politicians' penchant to run for office: You elect people to citywide office with a tiny fraction of citizens' support.

In 2017, for example, Mayor Lyda Krewson was elected to run a city of roughly 300,000 with a grand total of 17,253 voters. Krewson prevailed with 32 percent of the Democratic vote in a seven-way field, winning by 879 votes over Treasurer Tishaura Jones.

Krewson became mayor with the support of roughly 8 percent of eligible voters. Inversely stated, "not 92 percent" of eligible voters chose the city's leader.

"When you have seven candidates in the race, the vote is going to be split," Krewson said at the time. "Getting 32 percent was enough. I feel good."

She should have felt good. Krewson won the system St. Louis has in place, no questions asked. The lack of a mandate implied by getting elected in this manner in no way reflects upon the mayor. But it becomes her reality.

In the same primary election, Comptroller Darlene Green, the most widely respected citywide leader for a generation, won with her customarily large measure, 79 percent, a total of 39,165 votes.

Meanwhile, Krewson's total looks like a landslide next to the 12,416 who elected Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, in a four-way race, to his nearly-as-powerful post in city government in 2019. Thanks to the oddness of this odd-year election system, that outcome was decided by an electorate that wouldn't have filled Busch Stadium.

It's time for the city to change its voting system. Like yesterday.

Thanks to an amazingly organic effort that's a model of democracy, city voters will be asked November 3 to pass Proposition D to overhaul its pitiful system. Essentially the ballot measure would do three things:

• establish nonpartisan elections for mayor, comptroller, aldermanic president and aldermen in place of the current primaries;

• institute a process known as "approval voting" for a first round of voting in those elections, in which voters can make as many or as few selections among the election fields for those races;

• conduct a very meaningful April runoff election of the top two vote-getters in each race, replacing the aforementioned nonsense.

This should be a no-brainer. Nothing's going to change the one-party dominance of the Democrats in anyone's lifetime, so the fundamental pretense of a two-party system should be easily discarded.

The notion of local partisan elections is obsolete. An estimated 80 percent of major American cities have nonpartisan balloting to elect their municipal leadership, including almost every progressive one in the nation. It should also be changed in St. Louis County, but that's for another time.

One Democrat complained privately to me that this would make it easier for a Republican to get elected to city office. Good. That most undemocratic concern should stay private as far as I'm concerned.

The runoff concept would wipe out the decades-old scourge — usually across racial lines — of spoiler or "stalking horse" candidates being placed into races by candidates to dilute their opposition. White Democrats have been especially adept at this technique, although Blacks have engaged in their share of it as well.

I'm guessing the most controversial element of the proposal is approval voting, because it's unfamiliar and, thus, a bit unpredictable. I like it. Basically, in the first round of voting, the electorate decides which candidates in the field it finds fit or acceptable to hold office, winnowing the field to two choices, who then have a fair fight in April.

This is the process that the United Nations uses to select its secretary general, but St. Louis would be the largest city to try it. Its electoral cousin — ranked voting, in which first-round voters (obviously) rank their preferences in order — is more common in the U.S. But, I'm told, it was technologically not possible in St. Louis (which is shocking, considering how futuristic we are).

Approval voting will reward those candidates who reach out across geographical and racial lines to get their messages and personas in front of as wide a spectrum as possible. Conversely, it should discourage negative campaigning, which might boomerang on those doing the attacking.

If the voters pass this measure November 3 — and I think they will — it would go into effect immediately and most certainly impact the upcoming mayoral and aldermanic races. The novelty of it all should inspire greater turnout.

I think my favorite part of this is how it came about. It all started with indignation against the existing system on the part of one Tyler Schlichenmeyer. The young man is 28, not a native St. Louisan, nor a politician.

He's a Washington University graduate student working toward his doctorate in engineering. But he got some fellow idealists together, they formed a group called STL Approves, got a $75,000 grant from something called the Center For Election Science, and here we are.

I asked Schlichenmeyer why he wasn't trying to be a household name. He's a bit shy, it turns out: "I try to keep a low profile."

Wow. This is definitely not your typical St. Louis story.

I think that's why it's worth a shot. 

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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