Splitting the city council at-large elections

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As we interviewed candidates in the special election for an at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council, we were reminded of recent discussions in some quarters about a proposal to change the way at-large council members are elected. Under the current system, candidates running for the two at-large council seats in regularly scheduled citywide elections engage in a political free-for-all. That is, all candidates run for both seats and against all other candidates, and voters can vote for two candidates.

That system strikes us as arcane for several reasons. First, it makes for some strange mathematics because a “majority” is defined as 25 percent plus one, rather than the traditional majority of 50 percent plus one. That, in turn, sometimes encourages candidates to suggest that their supporters cast only one ballot, which is antithetical to the notion of maximum voter participation. Second, the current system forces good candidates who are allied (or just like-minded) to run against one another, rather than as a team. Third, the current system undermines efforts to achieve racial power sharing on the council — having one black and one white at-large member — which many voters believe is a good thing.

We think it’s time to move forward with honest, civil discussions of the idea of changing the City Charter to split the at-large elections into separate divisions, as is done in Jefferson Parish. Splitting the at-large contests won’t guarantee that we elect better candidates; that’s always up to the voters. But it will simplify the process, bring some clarity to at-large elections, and potentially encourage even better candidates to qualify for these important offices. We hope proponents of this idea will continue to promote it, and we hope members of the City Council will consider putting it on the ballot for voter approval before the next round of citywide elections.

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