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City Charter Revision – Runoff Elections

 

City of ClarksvilleClarksville, TN - As many of you know, the city is embarking upon its third effort to get a revised/updated charter through the state legislature. I am the chairman of this latest effort. We are entering the sections where the last revised charter effort dealt with powers and responsibilities of the council and mayor.

There were four or five areas within these sections that seemed to be the stumbling block for some at the state and local level, even though the State Attorney General had no legal issues with what was proposed. As I did the two previous times, I will come to you for some “brainstorming” on specific areas of the charter.

In this email, the topic I am exploring is runoff elections. Currently the city charter does not authorize a runoff and neither did any of the revised versions of the charter. It was discussed in detail and at length in the previous charter reviews, but did not garner enough support to gain charter committee or council approval for inclusion to the updated charter. The concept has also been brought forward several times at the council itself over the past four years and as recently as a couple of months ago.

I will break this out based on the discussions and research I have gathered since this concept surfaced. So bear with me if it seems this gets a bit too detailed, but I want to be sure you get all the info needed to respond back to me.

Councilman Burkhart had resurfaced the idea of a runoff a month or two ago. He had suggested that both council members and the mayor face runoffs if the winner did not receive 50+% of the vote. His suggestion/request was put on hold pending this latest effort to revise the charter. It is from that starting point that I will proceed with where I see this issue and what needs to be done.

Topic: Proposed charter would require that any candidate, for any city office (to include city judge) receive 50+% of the vote for that office. Any amount less than that would require a runoff.

Mayoral Runoff

Pros/positives:

  1. Anyone elected would have had to receive the majority of the vote for the office.  A clear mandate would have been given and the complaint that the winner “did not represent the majority of those that voted” is no longer a valid complaint.
  2. While I do not want to hurt any past candidate’s feelings, any serious effort to run for the office of mayor is going to cost thousands of dollars.  By not having such money on hand or access to such funding is fooling one’s self that they have any chance to get their message out to the voter and thus get elected.  A runoff would help separate the “wheat from the chaff” and redistribute votes to viable candidates.

Cons/negatives:

  1. It will drive up the cost of an election for a candidate.
  2. It lengthens the campaign for mayor.
  3. The city will pay more for the additional election (up to $80,000).
  4. History has shown that we don’t normally get even 50% of the registered voters to actually vote (usually closer to the 30% range) so the argument of a clear mandate of all the people is not supported.
  5. Past elections in areas that hold runoffs show less than half of those that voted in the first will return to vote in runoff elections. Often it can be as low or lower than 20% of the original voters.  Thus, the credibility of a “mandate” is further weakened.
  6. State law does not allow for runoffs in any state or county elections so why should cities be any different.

Again, based on my conversations with ward residents the support for a mayoral runoff is there. I am supportive of a runoff too and will present an approach from that standpoint.

Mayoral Runoff Proposals

Option 1

The city holds elections as usual with the top two candidates (no one got 50+%) going to a runoff after the November general election.

Pros/positives:

  1. All candidates for a city office run together so everyone is in the same election “basket”.

Cons/negatives:

  1. The runoff will cost in the range of $70,000-$80,000 as it is a city only election and the city would bear the full charge, where it is shared in a general election with the county.
  2. It takes three weeks to certify an election and one week after that to allow for a candidate challenge.  If a candidate challenges the final tally, the machines are locked-up until the issue is resolved.  There is no estimate on the time that could take.  Then it would take one to two weeks to wipe the voting machines and reset for the runoff.  Then 20 days have to be allowed for early voting.  Then there would be the regular Election Day.  Basically, it would take two months to do unless state law could be waivered.  The mayor is supposed to take office January 1st and this timetable would not allow it unless we change the date of assuming office.
  3. Any runoff held in this timeframe would be hard to operate as it would cross with three holiday periods and interest would likely be low.
  4. Higher costs to the candidates that make it to the runoff.  A good candidate might run out of money to keep his/her message out there and get beat due to finances and not issues.

Option 2

The city holds its mayoral election at the same time as the county in the August primaries and then uses the November general election as the runoff.

Pros/positives:

  1. The elected mayor will be able to take office in January as is current charter requirements.
  2. It allows time for the election commission to conduct all of it requirements as directed by state law.

Cons/negatives:

  1. Cost to the city would be about $30,000 for the primary in August, as the city pays nothing now due to having no one run in the August election. The city would pay its usual fee for the November election.
  2. Actual experience has shown that many citizens confuse what issues are the responsibility of the city and those assigned to the county. As an example, some still think the city is responsible for the school system. Yes, we donate a sizable amount of city sales taxes to help out the schools, but the city does not decide the school budget or its operations.  Animal control, the jail and some emergency services are other areas that often confuse citizens. Thus, the potential that some citizens would be voting for or against a candidate on issues not in the realm of responsibility for that office is possible. That is not fair to either the candidate or the electorate.
  3. If an outright winner was chosen in the August election a no runoff was needed, that winning candidate could try and influence the outcome of the council ward races.  It could be said that a mayor could do this in the off-cycle council election races, but this could allow a shot at the whole council.
  4. Higher costs to the candidates that make it to the runoff. A good candidate might run out of money to keep his/her message out there and get beat due to finances and not issues.

Option 3

The city holds a non-partisan primary election for mayor in August with the two candidates receiving the most votes running for mayor in the November general election.  Even if one got a majority, the two candidates would still compete in November.

Pros/positives:

  1. Mayor and council would be voted in together.
  2. Runoff is actually eliminated or could be considered built in due to the primary.
  3. While longer term political financing is involved for candidates, they know there would be two races and could plan their campaign spending accordingly.
  4. Less strain on the election commission on work and planning.
  5. It might actually increase voter interest having two final candidates working uncluttered with all the county race materials, but held at the time period of a regular election schedule.
  6. It may weed-out those candidates that aren’t serious about the effort and finances it would take to run a full campaign.
  7. If item #6 occurred and only two candidates happen to qualify for the mayor’s race, then the August elections could be bypassed and the city pay for only one election in November.

Cons/negatives:

  1. It will cost about $30,000 to pay for the election, if item #7 above did not occur.
  2. Although two candidates will still battle for the office, they and any others who run will still have to work, get their message out and compete for your eyes and ears with the all the county candidates.
  3. It would a higher financial toll on the candidates and a long campaign season with the addition of three or four months to have to work. This could work against a good candidate that has limited financial resources.

My recommendation for mayoral runoff consideration

If we are to have some form of runoff or weeding-out process, I believe Option 3 provides this capability with the fewest negative factors. I wish I could say that I came up with this idea all on my own, but it isn’t the case. I have talked with our outstanding election commissioner, Vickie Koelman, many times in the past few years on runoff elections. A recent talk with her brought up the non-partisan primary concept that another city uses. I have asked her to check with the state and see if there would be any issues or problems if Clarksville were to adapt such an approach in it charter.

Given the state has not had issue with this other city doing this and Vickie could not bring to mind anything that would stop us, I believe this option may be viable. However, she will check for us to see if some “small print” exists that might affect this approach.

City Council Ward Runoffs

The concept of ward runoffs really had not been mentioned very much until Councilman Burkhart bought up the request.  Basically, the Pros/Cons of council races are the same as for mayor.  However, I am AGAINST council runoffs for several reasons:

  1. The biggest reason is the job of councilman is technically a part time job with minimal pay. You do not become a council member for the money or perks, as there is little money and no perks. You do it as a community service.
  2. I ran as bare-bone campaigns and the costs can still be $4000 – $6000. Donations help a great deal, but someone starting as an unknown for the first time may have to use their own money to run their campaign.
  3. I see the council position as the entry level of helping your community. It can weed out those who really are not into serving for the right reasons, but it also encourage those who enjoy helping their neighbors and community and may want to do it at higher elected levels. I believe minimum interference or additional costs are required to encourage good people to try it at least once.
  4. A council position is only 1/12th of the council. A councilman is restricted to a large degree in the amount of help, or damage, they can inflict upon the city. The mayor is the day-to-day CEO whose decisions can have an immediate impact upon city operations and costs.
  5. Although our ward produces strong election returns it is not the case with many other wards. Wards are divided into relatively equal population numbers every 10 years. Yet, there can be wards such as ours that will bring out over 2900 voters for a council race while another ward will not draw 500. If there is so much lesser interest in an election for council in some wards, evidence shows a runoff will excite them even less.

City Judge Runoffs

Little has been said about the city judge selection process. However we will be looking at it. I do not support any runoff for the city judge. Many of the reasons I listed on the council runoff would apply here. It is a part time position and the limitations placed on the job by the state limit its impact and area of responsibility.

Another Approach

There have been discussions about another type of runoff called the instant runoff voting. However, in discussions with election officials there seems to be some issues with this approach. If you are not familiar with this type of voting, a voter will rank candidates in order of preference at the ballot box. After the initial count if no one has 50%+ the candidate with the fewest votes is deleted and the votes for that candidate are redistributed according to the second preference. This process continues with the deletion of the next lowest vote getting candidate until someone gets 50%+.

There are several concerns with this approach. Current county voting machines do not allow for this voting approach.  Since the state and county elections do not have runoffs it could be the city that would have to pay for new election machines. In addition, there have been issues of paper backup of votes and other election issues that the state has not fully decided on. There is also concern that the technology may not be as good or matured to the point of full confidence. Also, any paper ballots would have to be hand counted and sorted to redistribute voting selections.

The pluses for this system is it is cheaper (no additional election or extra costs for candidates) and it’s a “one and done” election. However, there are reports in where it has been used that if there are a number of candidates, someone in the number three of four position after the initial ballot counting can win based on getting more of the second position votes from candidates eliminated below them. Then does that winning candidate actually represent the majority? That candidate would not win in a traditional runoff because they would not have been the top two vote getters. Imagine the debates of that election result. At this time the negatives seem to outweigh the positives with this approach.

After you have read this, if you wish, provide me some feedback. I would greatly appreciate it. We will be looking at this topic next week.


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