Saturday, September 28, 2013

When is Democracy not so Democratic?

In Political Thought this week we discussed the following from the Boston Mayoral election first round of voting.

Candidate Total votes % of votes
Martin Walsh  20,838 18.50%
John Connolly  19,420 17.20%
Charlotte Golar Richie 15,536 13.80%
Daniel Conley 12,764 11.30%
Felix Arroyo 9,888 8.80%
John Barros 9,138 8.10%
Rob Consalvo 8,592 7.60%
Michael Ross 8,155 7.20%
Bill Walczak 3,822 3.40%
Charles Yancey 2,388 2.10%
Charles Clemons Jr. 1,799 1.60%
David Wyatt 334 0.30%

In this system voting is done on a non-partisan basis and the top two vote getters move on to the final election on November 5th. This election is remarkable in that long time incumbent Mayor, Tom Menino, is retiring so there is an open race for the first time in 20 years. The dynamics of a once in a generation opportunity attracted a field of very strong candidates. Not surprising then, the result of first round voting was split so that the two winners emerged with a combined total of just under 36% of the vote.

The question posed to the students is what constitutes a "democratic" method of electing officials. Under our system we have two forms of democratic participation, direct democracy, which allows the people through mechanisms like initiative and referendum to have a direct say over the passage of legislation or creation of constitutional law at the state and local level. The other form is representative democracy where we elect our officials. According to the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl, Democracy consists of far more than just the form of selection, but that form must allow for the weighting of their preferences equally with no discrimination because of content or source. There is more in his work, A Preface to Democratic Theory.

At first blush that seems to be the case. All voter preferences are equally reflected in that in totaling 112, 674 votes all are counted equally. Until they need to turn into a decision and then the top two finishers win and the rest don't. Which means that the preferences of over 64% of the voters are not reflected in the participants moving onto the final round. In the second round the winner is the candidate with over 50% of the vote, but does that actually represent a majority given that the first choice of almost two-thirds of the voters is no longer and option.

This is why advocates for voting reform pose options such as Alternative Vote, where voters can rank order their preferences. Under that scenario the complaint heard about the Boston result, crowded field of candidates including six candidates of color, yet two Caucasian males emerge. For example, under an Alternative Vote, by rolling up the lesser preferences of the bottom candidates someone like Charlotte Golar Richie could have challenged the top finishers. It will be interesting to see if the second round of voting this year results in a higher turnout. In 2009 when Mayor Menino faced a serious challenge the first round brought out 81000 voters in a four way first round and nearly 110,000 in the run-off between Menino and Flaherty. In that case almost 75% of the voters in the first round saw their choices move on to the second round.

Full disclosure, as readers know I did spend some time helping Marty Walsh in this election and I will be thrilled when he is elected Mayor.

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