Majority should rule in local elections, but often doesn't
"The people have spoken," is a common phrase used once all the votes have been counted. But, too often, what the people have actually said is, "We wanted someone else."
Missouri allows candidates to be elected to office and earn party nominations with a plurality of the vote -- no majority required.
With six candidates vying for the Republican nomination to replace Mick Epperly as Barry County sheriff, it's a safe bet that August's nominee will not earn a majority vote. In fact, it's mathematically possible that a candidate could advance to November's general election ballot despite 83 percent of voters casting ballots against him.
The situation would have been worse had Democrat Justin Ruark not entered the race during the last day of filing. Had he not, a nominee earning as little as 17 percent of the vote could have strolled into this highly-important office unopposed, barring an independent challenge.
Many states -- including our neighbors in Arkansas and Oklahoma -- require candidates to obtain a majority vote to win an election or party nomination. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, a runoff election is held a few weeks later between the top two vote-getters.
In the sheriff's race, let's say the top two vote-getters receive 17 percent each. Under a runoff system, 66 percent of voters who cast their ballots for the bottom four candidates -- as well as the 34 percent who advanced their preferred candidates to the runoff ballot -- would get to choose between the last two candidates standing.
In short, the leading candidate would win the nomination because the voters made a clear choice, not by a mathematic anomaly.
What I found in covering Arkansas and Oklahoma elections was that the second-highest vote-getter was usually the favorite to win a runoff -- especially when an incumbent was in the race. In races involving three or more candidates, the incumbent usually placed first, while the votes of people who wanted change was split amongst the challengers. If the incumbent failed to earn a majority on the first ballot, it was a good sign that the will of the people would be behind the challenger in a runoff.
Many Missouri elections I've covered would have gone a different way if a runoff system were in place. Missouri elections involving three or more candidates stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Elections to office too often become de facto lifetime appointments. The system discourages citizens who could make a positive impact in government from taking part in a process that is set up for them to fail.
Furthermore, a plurality voting system encourages "tactical voting" in which people choose the best of who they perceive to be the two frontrunners -- the "lesser of two evils" principle -- even though they may strongly prefer a different candidate. No one likes throwing their vote away, and a runoff system would go a long way toward encouraging people to vote their conscience.
We are pleased that our local lawmakers are open to considering a runoff system in Missouri. Gary Youngblood, Barry County clerk, raised valid concerns about the cost of additional elections. But what better use of our tax dollars than to make sure the will of the people is represented in government?
Missouri owes it to its residents to make sure our values are represented in our leadership. If our neighbors in Arkansas and Oklahoma can do it, so can we.
Jacob Brower is the publisher of the Cassville Democrat, president of Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, and serves on the Missouri Press Association board of directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 417-847-2610.