Editorial: Nonpartisan runoffs would make St. Louis city elections more competitive - Open Primaries
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Editorial: Nonpartisan runoffs would make St. Louis city elections more competitive

Posted by Russell Daniels on August 31, 2020 at 9:11 AM

written by the Editorial board of the St. Louis Post Dispatch

If much of St. Louis frequently seems unhappy with the city’s political leadership, it may be because, too often, the mayor and other top officials were chosen by a small minority of the voters. Mayor Lyda Krewson, for example, won the 2017 Democratic primary — which in this Democratic city is tantamount to winning the seat — with just 32% of the vote in a crowded field.

Voters will have a chance to reform that system on Nov. 3 with a ballot measure that would remove party affiliation from the city’s primaries and make the general election a runoff between the two top vote recipients.

Right now, St. Louis elects its mayor in the same way America chooses its president: Multiple candidates compete in the primary election for nominations from the Democratic, Republican and other parties, then the party nominees square off in the general election. The difference is that, nationally, the two parties are competitive, so the general election really is a contest. Not so at the city level. St. Louis, like many urban centers, is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the party’s primary is effectively the deciding election, with the general election relegated to a formality.
There’s no limit to the number of candidates who can run in party primaries, but each voter can choose just one. So in the 2017 mayoral race, for example, Krewson, one of seven Democratic primary candidates, won even though almost 70% of primary voters chose someone else.
Had Krewson had to face, say, second-place Democratic finisher Tishaura Jones in the general election, it might well have been a different outcome. But under the current, partisan structure, Jones and every other Democrat was out of the running after the primary, leaving Krewson with only general-election opponents from other parties — which, again, isn’t a competitive race in an overwhelmingly one-party city.

The change that the advocacy group STL Approves got onto the November ballot via petitions would create a nonpartisan election system, which is what most other municipalities in Missouri and much of America use. A twist to the proposed St. Louis plan is that primary voters could choose as many candidates as they want for mayor, comptroller, alderman and aldermanic president. That method is a form of “approval voting,” in that it doesn’t force voters to split their votes if they favor two or more candidates. The winner is then chosen in the runoff of the top two.

Democrats would still effectively run the city by virtue of their numbers. But a Krewson, instead of facing a slew of vote-splitting fellow Democrats and then an unelectable Republican, would face one general election opponent with an actual chance of beating her. It would force all the candidates to broaden their appeal. Could that be anything but positive in these polarized times?

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