Boston City Council elections should use preferential voting

By | September 2, 2007

As noted at Universal Hub, the Boston City Council submitted a home-rule petition over the summer, asking the State Legislature to allow them to dispense with a preliminary election which would have winnowed the field of at-large candidates from nine down to eight. The legislature agreed, and Governor Patrick signed the legislation.

When I first heard that this was in the work, I thought it was a good idea. It seemed like an incredible waste of money to hold an entire election just to eliminate one candidate. However, I’ve since come to realize that they’ve done exactly the wrong thing.

There shouldn’t be fewer preliminary elections, there should be more of them. Either that, or it should be much harder to get one’s name on the ballot as a candidate for City Council.

Very few people bother to vote in City Council elections. When you combine an extremely low voter turnout with a large pool of candidates, what you end up with is election results with statistically insignificant gaps between the candidates.

Another thing… Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot was enough to prevent Al Gore from becoming president. Clearly, if having only three candidates in a nationwide election can cause essentially half of the country to get the President they don’t want, then all the more so, having eight candidates in an election that’s many orders of magnitude smaller, is going to more voters than necessary without the City Councilor they would have preferred.

Conducting preliminary elections to winnow the pool of candidates down to a lot fewer than eight is one possible solution to this problem, albeit not the best one. Making it harder to get on the ballot is another possible solution, although it’s also not the best one.

The best solution is to use some sort of preferential voting system (sometimes called “instant runoff voting”). With preferential voting, you don’t need preliminary elections, and it doesn’t matter how many candidates are on the ballot.

Here’s why it won’t happen, even though it should:

  1. Cambridge does it. As far as Boston is concerned, every idea that comes out of Cambridge is a commie pinko plot that we must avoid at all costs.
  2. The Boston City Council and Elections Department think that Boston voters are too stupid to understand preferential voting.
  3. And the real reason… Single-candidate voting favors incumbents far more than preferential voting.

Do any current City Councilors or candidates have the courage to advocate for preferential voting for City Council elections?

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3 thoughts on “Boston City Council elections should use preferential voting

  1. jik Post author

    Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article about approval voting the method referenced by Gerg above, which discusses in brief some of the potential drawbacks with preferential voting.

    I suspect approval voting would also be superior to what we have now. I’m not sure whether preferential voting or approval voting would be superior in practice. Two of the big points in favor of approval voting is that it’s a lot easier to understand than preferential voting and that it’s easier to implement with the terrible Diebold voting machines that the City of Boston has *sigh* invested so much money in.

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  2. jik Post author

    I am unaware of the research to which you refer. Can you provide a reference? I cannot locate one.

    In any case, I submit that while it may be possible that there are edge cases in which preferential balloting does not function optimally, the vote-for-one-candidate system we use now fails so often to yield an acceptable result that just about anything else would be better.

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  3. Gerg

    You realize preferential balloting was proven by an MIT alumni to have some pretty severe problems? Namely you can lose due to getting too many votes.

    The same person proved that pretty much all systems suffer from these problems and the system which suffers least often is approval voting in which you vote yes/no on every candidate (or alternately can vote for as many candidates as you like but only once for any given candidate).

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