The hottest 2006 St. Louis area state senate contest is shaping up in the 4th District, where incumbent Democrat Patrick Dougherty is term-limited. The district comprises roughly the western half of the City of St. Louis, from Walnut Park on the north through St. Louis Hills on the south. Overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner is decided in the Democratic primary.
For the generation preceding 1991, the district was situated wholly in north St. Louis and its residents were mostly African American. When redistricting after the 1990 census forced the city to give up a couple districts, the two African American districts (the 4th and 5th) were reconfigured into elongated north-south boundaries with integrated populations and African American incumbents. Lacy Clay, son of the city’s African American congressman, won the 4th District without Democratic primary opposition.
The 2001 redistricting caused the 4th and 5th Districts to expand south into new predominantly white territory. The redistricting coincided with Clay’s midterm resignation to move up to succeed his father in Congress. In behind-the-scenes bickering, the Democratic committee nominated Dougherty to succeed Clay. Dougherty is white. In the succeeding election for the full term in 2002, African-American State Rep. O. L. Shelton challenged Dougherty one-on-one, but voters re-elected Dougherty by a surprising 2-1 margin. With Dougherty’s term at an end, African American politicians are hungry to take back a seat that many regard as rightfully theirs.
Looking ahead to 2006, the district seems to break down roughly this way: The northern third or so is solidly African American, roughly the middle third is racially integrated but predominantly progressive whites, and the rest (The Hill, Lindenwood, Southhampton and St. Louis Hills) is predominantly conservative whites. The district has a slight black majority in overall population, but the 2002 contest demonstrated that whites enjoy a majority among actual voters. A two-candidate black-white contest like 2002 would favor the white, but the contest would be competitive because a non-incumbent would fall well short of Dougherty’s margin. A 3-way contest with one major contender from each “third” of the district would be nearly even, with a slight edge to the African American. Except for conservatives in the south end, the district is overwhelmingly progressive.
But in a Democratic primary in the City of St. Louis with lots of ambitious and term-limited state reps eager to move up, things aren’t that simple. Two African-American state reps, Yaphett El-Amin and Amber Boykins, seem poised to run, and they would likely split the African-American vote. Two rising stars in the progressive white community, State Rep. Rachel Storch and near-miss congressional candidate Jeff Smith, have announced their candidacies and set up official campaign committees. If both continue their campaigns, they would likely split the progressive white vote. Fred Kratky, a conservative pro-business, pro-life state rep from St. Louis Hills (and former city Democratic committee chair), is also poised to run. So far no competition from the “conservative third” of the district has emerged, but that could change. The filing deadline is in late March of next year.
Moreover, a long-standing city Democratic tradition in geographically, racially or ideologically polarized contests such as this is the filing of additional “stalking horse” candidates who appeal to the same set of voters of one candidate but are actually friendly to a different candidate, to draw votes away from the favored candidate’s opponent.
In the absence of stalking horses (who typically emerge on the final day of filing), if all five of those candidates run, and are the only major candidates to do so, the favorite to capture the “plurality wins” contest would be Kratky, the most conservative candidate in a progressive district. It would take a substantial win in either the African-American or progressive white “subprimaries” to overtake him. Smith’s proven success at grassroots campaigning may give him the best shot at doing so, but it won’t be easy. The chances that the district’s progressive majority could be stuck with a conservative senator are high.
There is a solution to this dilemma if legislators would only consider it. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)
is an alternative to the archaic “plurality wins” system. Instead of selecting a single candidate, voters would be allowed to rank the candidates as first choice, second choice, etc. If counting the first-choice votes fails to produce a majority for any candidate, the second-choice votes of the lowest finishing candidate would be reallocated among the higher finishing candidates, and the process would be repeated among third and subsequent choices until a candidate emerges with a majority. The cost, delay and lower voter turnout for a separate runoff election is avoided. IRV is already in place for municipal elections in progressive venues such as San Francisco and Cambridge, as well as in the most conservative venue imaginable, the Utah Republican State Convention. Other nations ahead of the U.S. in adopting this reform include Ireland and Australia.
An election decided by IRV would produce a winner that a majority of voters preferred over the next strongest contender, without requiring voters to sacrifice their real preference to a mere “lesser evil” to avoid “throwing the election” to someone worse. The system works in a crowded party primary, a multi-candidate non-partisan election (such as for school board) and multi-party general elections. Political dirty tricks like same-name and other stalking horse candidacies would no longer work under IRV. Principled third-party candidates like Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan and independent visionaries like Ross Perot would no longer bear the unfair blame for “spoiling” an election.
Legislators have been cool to the idea, though, because major parties like being able to manipulate the current system. Perhaps a “spoiled” primary like the 4th District, where there is no third-party scapegoat to bear the blame, will be the catalyst for reform.