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Menlo Park: Election reformers recommend ranked-choice voting system

 

Menlo Park has more options to at-large voting – electing all City Council members citywide – than just moving to district elections, according to two officials from election reform organizations.

The city is currently facing a lawsuit threat that it must move away at-large elections toward a voting system that makes it easier for candidates supported by minority residents in Belle Haven to get elected to the City Council.

Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, and Jennifer Pae, director of FairVote California, gave presentations at a public workshop in Menlo Park on Oct. 7. They explained options for the city as it transitions to a voting system that can more effectively get underrepresented groups in office and reflect voters' preferences.

The city is facing a potential lawsuit if it does not change its election system. Menlo Park can keep itself safe from a lawsuit by switching to by-district elections, in which the city would be split into districts, and only residents of a given district could elect their representative. But that system has drawbacks, said Mr. Chessin. Drawing boundaries throughout the city can foster balkanization and governance by "mini-mayors," he said, since council members would be accountable only to the constituents of their district, rather than responsive to the needs of the entire city.

Ranked choice

Mr. Chessin and Ms. Pae spoke in favor of a ranked-choice voting system, rather than the current "winner-take-all" system.

Ranked-choice voting sounds complicated, but basically, the idea is that voters would be given the option to rank candidates, depending on the number of seats available. Any candidate that gains enough first-choice votes to cross a threshold to win (more than 50 percent of the votes for one open seat, 33 percent for two open seats, or 25 percent for three open seats) would give up any excess votes beyond that winning threshold to be redistributed to voters' second-choice picks. If the right number of candidates has not yet crossed that threshold to win, then the candidate with the fewest votes, after the first round of vote distributions, would be eliminated and those votes would be redistributed to voters' second- or third-choice picks.

The ranked-choice system has some advantages. One is that runoff elections can be done instantly and a separate round of voting is not needed, according to Ms. Pae. The system also produces more cordial campaigns, she said. That's because candidates are discouraged from attacking other candidates, since supporters of other campaigns are not opponents, but rather, potential sources for second-choice votes.

According to FairVote, there are four cities that use ranked-choice voting in California: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. The organization cites a study claiming that in those cities, more women and people of color have run for and won elected offices.

Mix and match

Mr. Chessin pointed out that cities can mix-and-match different systems to do what makes sense depending on the demographics of each city.

In Santa Clara, for instance, he said, the city, facing a similar lawsuit, established a Charter Review Committee, which has recommended that the city be divided into two districts, each with three seats, to be selected via ranked-choice voting. That proposal is expected to go before voters next June.

However, ranked-choice voting alone doesn't guarantee that Belle Haven will get representation on the council, and may not be enough to solve the problem for which the city is facing a lawsuit threat. Some form of districting may be needed too.

To move forward with any alternative form of voting, other than strictly at-large (the city's current election system) or by-district systems, Menlo Park would have to convert from what's called a "general law" city to a charter city. That would mean changing the city's constitution, which requires voter approval.

Mr. Chessin encouraged the council to talk to Kevin Shenkman, the attorney representing the undisclosed plaintiff or plaintiffs in the Menlo Park lawsuit threat, to see if he would consider extending the deadline to allow a ranked-choice voting option to be brought before voters in a special election next June.

The city of Menlo Park is scheduled to host two public meetings to discuss options for election reform on Monday, Oct. 30, and Wednesday, Nov. 29. The meetings will likely start around 7 p.m. Locations have yet to be determined, according to Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith.

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