11 08 2019

We’ve had an election in Nashville since the last time I talked to you, but the results are….well, uncertain. The mayoral race is headed for a runoff between incumbent David Briley and Bob Cooper. As a side note, John Ray Clemmons, who was endorsed by “Our Revolution,” the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, came in a distant fourth. In the Metro Council at-large race, only Bob Mendes secured a seat by passing the 10% threshold. Eight candidates, Zulfat Suara, incumbent Sharon Hurt, Sheri and Weiner, Burkley Allen, Fabian Bedne, Howard Jones, Steve Glover and Gary Moore, will be facing each other in a runoff election on September 12. There will also be some runoffs for district seats. One of these runoffs involves a woman named Ginny Welsch, who just might have something to do with WRFN. I’m being vague because I’m not sure what details of election law might be applicable if she is associated with the station, knowhatImean?

I haven’ t been able to locate turnout figures for this year’s election, but, if the last couple of Metro elections are any guide, it was about 30%. Surprisingly, turnout for runoff elections doesn’t seem to drop off, which I suspected might be the case, but it costs the city the same amount for a citywide runoff as it does for the initial election. about three-quarters of a million dollars, which is not chump change, especially in a budget-strapped, infrastructure-challenged town like this.

The city had considered adopting ranked-choice voting, but some council members expressed concern that it would confuse voters, or couldn’t quite grasp how it would work themselves. When I looked into it, I found that the process is mostly simple enough to be explained in very short videos. The one thing that hung me up at first was expanding the concept to our somewhat unusual council-at-large situation, where voters select not one, but five candidates. I contacted Ranked Choice Tennessee, the statewide advocacy organization for ranked-choice voting and proportional representation, and it only took one sentence from them to make it clear to me. So, what I’m going to do, after I talk about the candidates who made it into the runoff, is show how ranked choice voting would work in the at-large council election we just had, by imagining who might have been voters’ second choices and running the numbers.

First, however, I want to give a shoutout to Aaron Fowles, one of those people I talked about earlier who get involved with The Green Party and then go on to other social change modes.  Aaron was our state Green Party chair for a while, but is now spending his activist time with Ranked Choice Tennessee. That seems to me like a logical progression.

So, let’s take stock of who did, and didn’t, make it into the runoff. Zulfat Suara came in second, behind Bob Mendes. She was endorsed by Our Revolution, and some of us are hoping she will turn out to be Nashville’s own Ilhan Omar, or at least our own Rashida Tlaib. In third place was incumbent Sharon Hurt, also an Our Revolution pick. Sheri Weiner was next, the highest polling (ssh!) GOP candidate. Burkley Allen and Fabian Bedne, two of my “let’s be governed by non-politicians” choices, were next. Howard Jones, a candidate I hadn’t paid much attention to, also made it into the runoff. From what I’m finding out about him, he would probably be a good council member. Steve Glover, a “fiscal conservative,” made it into the runoff, and Gary Moore, a former Tennessee legislator and union activist who worked hard, if unsuccessfully, to keep pipeline pumping stations, a source of air, water, and ground pollution, out of the Nashville area, was the final candidate to make it into the runoff. So, five of the eight candidates I thought would be good council members made it into the runoff, along with another candidate who seems to have a promising resume. Six out of eight–more than I can vote for, but better that way than vice-versa, eh?

So, how would ranked choice  voting work in this situation? Here’s the results of the election:

Sunday night update: After publishing and broadcasting this, it occurred to me that I was doing the math as if there had been 30,000 ballots with Burkley Allen’s name in the top spot, 24,000 with Fabian Bedne in the top spot, etc. That assumption creates a turnout rate for the election of 150%, rather than the actual 30%. It’s late at night, and I’m too tired to try and figure out if/how I need to adjust my figures for this faulty assumption. I’ll be consulting with RankedChoiceTennessee, and will change the figures if I need to.

Update after a good night’s sleep and communication with RankedChoiceTennessee: In the current rules for electing the Metro Council at-large positions, voters effectively rate 5 candidates as “number one,” and reject the remaining candidates altogether. That explains the “10%” threshold for election: “ten percent” means the candidate has received the votes of half of the voters. Under this system, the maximum percentage of the vote that a candidate could receive is 20%: if every voter selected the same candidate as one of their choices, the candidate would receive one out of every five votes, or 20%. The threshold for election would remain the same with ranked-choice voting. 340,000 total votes were cast in the at-large council race, making 34,000votes the threshold for winning.

So, if our recent election had been done in ranked-choice style, statistically speaking, each candidate’s initial total would have been a third of hir total in the actual election–that is, Robert Mendes would have started with around 12,000 votes, Zulfat Suara with just over 10,000, etc., and there would have been more elimination rounds than I go through in my mockup, but the process would be the same. I could rewrite this piece to reflect that, but I think it would try my readers’ patience, as well as my own. Even with all the extra figuring, however, ranked choice voting remains a far more efficient way to decide elections than our current method.

In the case of our recent election,

Of course, I can only speculate at what voters’ ranked preferences would be, but here goes:

Bob Mendes passed the threshold for election with 37,180 votes, 10.9% of the vote, approximately 3,380 votes more than he needed. This means that the threshold for winning a seat is 33,800 votes. When the second choices of Mendes voters are examined, they are evenly divided between votes for Sharon Hurt, Gary Moore, Fabian Bedne, and Burkley Allen, giving each of those candidates 845 more votes. Burkley Allen goes from 30, 456 to 31,301. Bedne’s total jumps from 24,792 to  25 .637. Sharon Hurt now has 32,306, and Gary Moore’s additional 845 votes get his total to 21,496. No new winners yet.

The next step is to start working our way up the candidate list, starting with Reuben Dockery, who received 5,370 votes. His supporters split their second-place votes evenly between Sharon Hurt, Zulfat Suara, Gicola Lane, Howard Jones, and Fabian Bedne. Each of those candidates gets an additional 1,074 votes, giving Hurt a total of 33,380, just shy of  the threshold. Suara now has 32,740, Jones 25,716, Gicola Lane goes to 21,147, and Bedne’s total is now 26,711.

Next from the bottom is Matthew DelRossi, whose 8,033 votes show even distribution of second choices between Michael Craddock, Adam Dread, Sherri Weiner, and Steve Glover. Craddock goes to 15,993, Dread to 21,536, Weiner to 33,279, and Glover to 25,701. Like Sharon Hurt, Sherri Weiner is now close to winning.

The third candidate to be eliminated is James Dillard, who received 13,954 votes.  His supporters’ second choices were divided between Burkley Allen, Fabian Bedne, Sharon Hurt, and Bob Mendes, but since Mendes is already elected, we look to the third choices on those ballots, and get an even division between Gary Moore and Zulfat Suara. That’s an additional  3,488 votes for Allen, Bedne, and Hurt, and an additional 1,744 for Moore and Suara. Allen is now at 34,789, over the threshold, so she wins a seat and has excess votes to redistribute. Bedne now stands at 30,199, Hurt at 37,868 has a seat and four thousand next choice votes to distribute. Moore’s total is now 23,390, and Suara stands at 34,838, putting her on the council, and creating another thousand “overvotes” to redistribute.

So far, Sharon Hurt, Zulfat Suara, and Burkley Allen have joined Bob Mendes on the council. There’s one seat left. Burkley Allen has approximately a thousand excess votes, Sharon Hurt has 4,000 over the threshold, and Suara has an extra thousand. That’s a total of 6,000 next-choice votes. Let’s say they are distributed evenly between Fabian Bedne, Howard Jones, Gicola Lane, and Gary Moore. To get this number, next choice votes for candidates who have already been elected, such as Mendes or Allen, or candidates who have already been eliminated, such as Dockery, are passed over for the next choice down a voter’s list.

So, this redistribution of six thousand votes, which just happens to be an even distribution for demonstration’s sake, results in 1500 votes per candidate. Bedne stands at 31,699, Jones 27,216, Lane 22,647, and Moore is at 24,890. The winner of the remaining seat has yet to emerge.

Michael Craddock is the next candidate to have his votes redistributed. He received 15,985 votes, with second choices evenly distributed between Adam Dread, Steve Glover, and Sherri Weiner, meaning each of them receives an additional 5,327 votes. When we include the next choices of the 2,008 transferred votes he has received in the course of the runoff, which also divided evenly between Dread, Glover, and Weiner, they each receive an additional 669 votes, raising their totals by 5,996.  That puts Sherri Weiner over the top, and we have our five At-Large Metro Council representatives. We’ve saved ourselves the time it takes for 30,000 voters to trek back to the polls, plus saved the three-quarters of a million dollars it would have cost to stage a runoff. Three quarters of a mil will pay for quite a lot of sidewalk,  or assistance to citizens in difficulty, or help pay down the city’s debt.

It’s worth noting that the four winners produced by ranked-choice voting, in the scenario I created, turn out to be the four candidates who received the most votes in the August election, and it’s common for runoff elections to simply elevate the first round runners-up into winners, but it’s also possible that some candidate who didn’t do well in the first round would turn out to be a lot of people’s second choice, and vault into the winner’s circle.

If we can institute ranked choice voting at the Metro level, and voters find it easier to understand than the politicians fear, which has been the case everywhere it’s been instituted–most notably the city of Minneapolis and the State of Maine–perhaps the next step could be making it a statewide voting policy, coupled with easing of the state’s prohibitive ballot access laws for political parties other than the Democrats and Republicans. That would make it easier for Greens, Libertarians, or any other party I could name to compete in elections without the appearance that having two “left” parties on the ballot for example, splits the left/liberal vote and allows the conservative to win, say, with a vote in which the Republican gets 48% of the vote, the Democrat 30%, and the Green 22%. Presuming that all the Green voters’ second choice was the Democrat, the Democrat ends up winning. That’s how it worked in one Maine district, which had elected a Republican since 1942. Ranked choice voting allowed supporters of the three liberal candidates on the ballot to support each other with second-choice votes, and a Democrat was elected.

While ranked choice voting faces some legal hurdles in Tennessee, it is not unreasonable to think that even Republicans will see the wisdom of spending less money on elections. We’ll soon find out. I hope this has helped you understand how ranked-choice voting would work here in Nashville. I’ve included a video that gives a much less detailed explanation, which some people may find helpful. I did. I know this has been one of the wonkier stories I’ve reported on!



music: “Indigenous Resilience,” by Caballo



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