OPINION: Wheeling Elections Need Reformed
Deciding municipal elections during the primary, a low-turnout election, means a minority of the voting populace will elect representatives, often on a plurality basis. It doesn't have to be this way.
As we face another election cycle in 2024 it’s important to remember there is more to vote for than president, Congress, and governor in West Virginia. Municipalities throughout the state will see candidates vying for Mayor and City Councilor–including here in Wheeling.
While these local elections are often more tame and underreported compared to larger offices their influence on the daily lives of the citizens in the Mountain State is consequential. Wheeling has the power over millions of dollars in federal, state, and local funds, but the voters in the city have little chance to scrutinize the candidates vying for these elected offices.
Despite this, the process for electing local representatives is deeply flawed.
The Current State of Electing Municipal Leaders
Most elections in the state involve a primary process. Candidates for an office face off against challengers in their own party in May with the top vote-getters moving on to the November general election. That is not how it goes for Wheeling municipal elections.
Candidates for City Council and Mayor are decided during the primaries in May, which often see lower turnout compared to the general election. This means that voters choose between any of the declared candidates whether it be two or ten people running.
In 2020–the last time Wheeling elected their local representatives–votes were cast in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only three of the seven elections–six Councilors and one Mayor–were decided by majority, or having received 50% plus one of votes cast.
One of these races, Ward 6, was unopposed.
Of the four races decided by a plurality, or having received the most votes of all declared candidates, two–Ward 2 and Ward 3–saw candidates win with less than 40% of the votes cast.
It is not inherently bad for more than two candidates to run in an election, but in our first-past-the-post electoral system, where the person with the most votes wins irrespective of if it is a plurality or majority, races with more than two candidates are decided by minorities of a district. This system sows seeds of division and distrust.
Two Proposed Solutions
Considering the flaws of our current municipal electoral process–elections decided in the low-turnout primaries, often by plurality–there are two ways to amend the system.
One would be to hold a primary election between all declared candidates for a race with the top two vote-getters advancing to the November general election. This would see the competition focus on the most popular candidates as decided by the voting district and ensure a closer-to-majority result (write-in candidates could lead to a plurality result).
This is how we elect other representatives, as in the West Virginia Legislature and the United States Congress, as well as Governor and President, among other races.
If this solution is undesirable another solution is available: ranked choice voting.
In contrast to first-past-the-post, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank the candidates declared for a race. If four candidates are running voters can rank them from most-favored to least-favored. When a candidate reaches 50% of the votes cast they are declared the winner.
Twelve states in the United States allow ranked choice voting in local elections, with three states–Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine–allowing the system in federal and statewide elections.
Creating a More Democratic Wheeling
The way Wheeling and other municipalities across West Virginia elect their local representatives is flawed. Often candidates win their races based on the wishes of a minority of voters leading some to feel disillusioned by the political system; they feel as though their vote doesn't matter.
When elections are decided on plurality rule, incumbent candidates with baked-in name recognition are able to escape scrutiny in crowded races. A rushed election timeline means that voters have less time to evaluate their choices.
Due to the historic low voter turnouts during primary elections, when Wheeling votes on who their mayoral and council representatives are in 2024 it is likely that a minority of the voting population will make the decision.
To fix these disparities the City of Wheeling should either hold their municipal elections through a primary, whittling down the races with the top-two vote-getters moving on to the November general election, or the city should institute ranked choice voting.
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