April 24, 2013

CONGRATULATIONS to D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D) for winning Tuesday’s special at-large election and also to Elissa Silverman (D) for a strong showing as a first-time candidate. But the abysmal voter turnout that saw a winner supported by roughly 3 percent of eligible voters must prompt concern about how these elections are held. Not only does the District need to examine how to boost voter participation but it also should move to a system of instant-runoff voting.

Ms. Bonds did not receive our backing in the campaign to serve the at-large council term vacated when Phil Mendelson (D) was elected chairman, but we hope she succeeds in meeting her election-night pledge to bring people together to help meet the city’s potential. It’s also clear from the way Ms. Silverman’s campaign resonated that she could have a political future, one that should be followed with interest. By contrast, prospects for the future of the local Republican Party appear dim with the third-place finish of GOP standard-bearer Patrick Mara.

The next regular round of council and local elections is slated for next year. So it’s important to look beyond the personalities of the recent election to the processes that allowed a citywide representative to be elected by a tiny minority of voters. Unofficial returns from the D.C. Board of Elections show 49,869 people — less than 10 percent of the District’s registered 505,698 voters — participating in the special election. Moreover, the winner received just 16,054 votes, or less than a third of those cast. Clearly, it’s not much of a mandate when more than two-thirds of voters prefer someone else.

A better system would provide for an instant runoff, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice and it takes a majority, not a plurality, to win. If such a system had been in place Tuesday, the last-place candidate would have been eliminated and all ballots recounted, with the votes for the stricken candidate reassigned to the second choice of his voters. The process would have continued until a candidate reached a majority.

FairVote, a nonprofit advocate for election reform, reports that this system — used in Australia, Ireland and such U.S. cities as San Francisco and Minneapolis — has proved to be cost-effective and popular. Voters have an incentive to participate, knowing that their vote counts even if their first choice is defeated. It also eliminates “spoiler” or “split vote” concerns that emerged as an issue in Tuesday’s election; instead of worrying about the “electability” of a candidate, voters can rank their choices with less worry that they are enabling a victory by a candidate with whom they have substantial differences. We urge the mayor and council to undertake a study of instant-runoff voting and what would be needed to implement it here.