THE DEATH of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and the election of council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) as mayor create two vacancies on the council that will be filled by special elections. If the experience of past special elections is a guide, many candidates will run while relatively few citizens will vote. That’s a combination likely to produce winners squeaking into public office without a mandate, which is hardly ideal.
The council could take steps to promote a more democratic process. Instant-runoff voting would allow voters to select candidates in order of preference. The system has been used with success by jurisdictions across the country. The elections, to be held next year, to fill Mr. Barry’s and Ms. Bowser’s seats offer an opportunity to test the idea. Stand-alone elections are ideal for a pilot because the ballot design is much easier even with current equipment. And anyone questioning the need for a new approach should check out the 1995 special election in Ward 8 after Mr. Barry was elected mayor: There was a field of 21 candidates and a winner with 20 percent of the vote.
Unfortunately, thus far there doesn’t seem to be much interest on the council in improving the electoral process. Legislation that would establish a system of instant runoff — in which voters rank candidates and it takes a majority, not a plurality, to win — has languished after being introduced this year by council member David Grosso (I-At Large).
Experience with instant runoff, according to FairVote, a nonprofit organization devoted to election reform, has shown it to be cost-effective and popular. It has been used in Australia, Ireland and a number of U.S. cities. The system gives voters an incentive to select their favored candidate, knowing that their vote will count even if their first choice is defeated. It eliminates concerns about “spoiler” candidates who split the vote, and it might cut down on negative campaigning as candidates seek voters for whom they might be the second or third choice instead of alienating them.
No doubt there may be bugs to work out and unintended consequences. As Mr. Grosso allowed to us, there may well be other methods of voting the council might want to consider. But council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the committee with oversight over elections, has yet even to schedule a hearing on the matter. If the council is serious about wanting to improve elections in the District, it needs to consider this proposal before another election comes and goes.