Should St. Louis Vote ‘Strategically’ on March 2? No One Knows

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  • The four candidates for Mayor of St. Louis. From left: Board of Directors of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Alderwoman Cara Spencer, Andrew Jones.

On March 2, for the first time in the history of the St. Louis election, voters will choose more than just their elected mayoral candidate. A new variable has been added to the mix in the form of a brief statement at the top of the ballot: “Vote for as many names as you agree in each race.”

There’s no catch, and “so many” means just that: voters in Tuesday’s dramatic primary can choose from mayoral candidates Lewis Reed, Tishaura Jones, Cara Spencer and Andrew Jones in any combination they prefer and without partisan labels.

However, with the elections less than 24 hours away, the St. Louis debut of the “approval vote” is being closely watched by electoral researchers and the campaigns themselves. Nobody knows exactly how voters will behave under the new system, and there is no simple answer to whether there is a strategic advantage in choosing one, two, three, or even four candidates to vie for mayor.

It all comes down to personal preference. However, Aaron Hamlin, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Electoral Science, says there is a strong case for “approving” more than one candidate in the primary phase of the election.

“By picking multiple people, you increase the chances of someone you really like moving on to the next round,” he notes. Hamlin suggests that voters agree on their top preference, but then choose at least one second candidate “with whom they would be happy to run the city”.

This of course means that a voter would have to consider more than one candidate to be satisfactory or at least partially satisfactory. Still, that doesn’t seem to have been as off in the current St. Louis mayoral contest, which has significant political overlap and multiple candidates who largely agree on issues like police accountability and strengthening the school system.

Voting for all four mayoral candidates is legal in primary education, but difficult to justify unless a voter is equally satisfied with one of the candidates.

On the other side of the spectrum, people could stick with what they know: to vote for a single candidate.

“People could still vote for one, they have that option, and that can still be a very honest expression,” admits Hamlin. Still, he argues that selecting a single candidate for the March 2nd primary is “a great risk” to any voter’s decisions in the April 6th election, as it will match the top two voters in the primary.

In other words, if a voter fails to make at least one second choice in the primary, they are forfeiting the chance to influence both sides of the April 6th matchup that will determine the next mayor of St. Louis.

“Someone could say, ‘I really like this person and I won’t be happy with anyone else,'” added Hamlin. “You’d have to realize, ‘Okay, I’m taking a serious risk here. It could mean that I’ve opened the door to someone I don’t like.'”

While the potential game art makes for compelling comments during consent voting, Hamlin and the Center for Election Science are eager to add real data to their behavioral theories. The center, which describes itself as an impartial research group “dedicated to empowering voters with voting methods that strengthen democracy,” has campaigned for a vote in an American city over the past few years consent is attempted.

In July 2020, that city became Fargo, North Dakota. The result: a local election with 18,800 ballots, with both top 2 candidates receiving more than 50 percent of the permits.

But Hamlin says it is difficult to draw conclusions between Fargo and St. Louis. On the one hand, Fargo’s electoral system differs significantly from the one that will be introduced in St. Louis tomorrow: Fargo conducts a single-stage local election in which a “top two” system was in place before the “approval vote” was received, she said Voters asked to select two candidates to fill vacant positions on the city commission.

With the vote of approval, Fargo voters approved an average of 2.3 candidates per ballot – suggesting that voters were not far from their previous voting behavior of picking two candidates per ballot.

Even with such a limited sample, Hamlin points to some notable positive results: In 2018, neither of the two winners of Fargo’s city commission election broke 18 percent of the vote, frustrating voters and leading activists for advocating reform of the city’s electoral system .

A similar path was followed in St. Louis in 2017, when a mayor’s primary ended with seven candidates and winner Lyda Krewson received just 32 percent of the vote. The elections sparked internal accusations among the city’s progressives and electoral dissatisfaction because there were no meaningful general elections. (Though separate from local efforts, the Election Science Center gave grants to the campaigns behind the electoral initiatives in both St. Louis and Fargo.)

Needless to say, St. Louis is a very different city and electorate than Fargo. If this were a national or state choice, that would be the part of the story where we’d look at local survey data – but there is very little water in that statistical pool. What we have is a January 11th poll by Show Me Victories that asked 732 registered city voters, “Do you intend to vote for ONE or more candidates for mayor?”

More than half of those surveyed, 59 percent, said they would only select one candidate, while the rest are split evenly between “multiple candidates” and “unsure or don’t know”.

In this poll, voters were most divided over their “first choice” for the mayor. 30 percent said they would choose the Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed, and 28 percent replied with Treasurer Tishaura Jones. However, the survey did not seek answers to possible second or third choices for voters.

In a second poll conducted by the Remington Research Group in early February, 501 city voters were asked whether each candidate would get “one of your votes” for mayor. The results again showed that Reed was in the lead with 59 percent and Tishaura Jones was just behind with 51 percent.

“That specific choice is a great unknown,” says Betsy Sinclair, a political science professor and election researcher at Washington University who studies how different electoral systems are being adopted by states.

As a researcher, Sinclair is excited to see what the March 2 data will reveal about pandemic voting and the simultaneous introduction of consent voting. “Will you feel like it was confusing or frustrating?” she wonders and rattles off questions that are waiting for answers. “What was the volume of the approval vote? Did voters choose more than one candidate? Do voters make decisions about ideology?”

All of this will soon become clearer, but the results could also show the extent to which voters try to strategize their choices. Detractors of the approval vote, including former mayoral candidate and current St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Antonio French, suggest scenarios where a voter goes against their own beliefs by approving two candidates: the one they approve of the most , and the one he considers the weakest to face opponents for this preferred choice in the runoff election.

This strategy, known as “raiding” or “crossover voting,” is seldom seen in existing blanket primary systems in California, Sinclair says.

“My impression is why people vote in the first place, which has to do with the feeling that they agree with a deep preference they have for the way they want the world to be lend, “she argues. “You are sincere. You are not trying to play the system.”

For researchers and electoral supporters, the election will then begin to clear the cloud of unknowns related to voting on consent, from the number of candidate selections to the impact the pandemic has on voter turnout.

But while the system has changed, the people and issues involved remain as critical as ever. The most pressing unknown in the 2021 elections is not about shaky voter strategies or hypotheses within hypotheses.

“I would like to know how voters will feel about the legitimacy of the election after the election,” she says. “I think that’s a really interesting question. It doesn’t have that much to do with the structure or the ability of this type of system to moderate the results. It has to do with how voters feel.”

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. Email the author at [email protected]

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