As many people are aware here in Rome, the way our municipal elections are conducted is complicated. If you don’t think so, let me see if I can convince you with a run-down of the details: For City Commission, you must live in the city and run for one of three wards that divide the city unevenly by the rivers. To run in a ward, you must live in that ward and three people are elected from each ward, meaning that a candidate has to place first, second or third in the race to be elected in the wide-open non-partisan general election. However, your seat is at-large, meaning you represent the whole city, so even though you have to live in a ward, it isn’t just that one ward who chooses you, but every city voter elects all nine commissioners and are asked to “choose three” in each ward. This gets more confusing when you realize that I haven’t mentioned the mayor yet, who is not separately elected by the people, but is one of the nine commissioners, as they vote between themselves to indirectly elect a mayor. You, the voter, get no say in who the mayor will be.
The Rome City School Board elections aren’t any better. You don’t have to live anywhere special (just in the city) and you don’t have a ward or district to run in, all of the seats are at-large. However, there are seven members, and they are all elected together, meaning that at least seven people have to run for school board for us to even need to have an election. This year, it means you have 15 candidates to pick from and your ballot will ask you to “choose seven.”
Because of the way this system is designed, many people have learned how to think strategically about how they vote, as they have to consider their votes for a candidate can also be votes against a candidate they also like, depending on how other people vote. For example, if I want three people to win in a particular ward for City Commission, you might think you should just vote for them. And you can. But, you also have to consider how other voters may vote and that if only two of your candidates are “safe,” it means that another may fall into fourth place, but if your “unsafe” candidate is the one you want the most, you might consider voting just for them, because your other two votes might cause the third to actually sink to fourth place and lose. This could also be true on the School Board, treating the entire board like one huge “ward.” Another problem is if you don’t want to vote for seven (school board) or three (city commission) of the candidates. You don’t have to pick the maximum number. Instead, you can vote for as few as you want, instead of trying to pick the maximum number because you can, thus helping candidates you don’t support to win, maybe at the expense of the people you really want. Confused yet?
We are the only city in Georgia, if not the nation, to elect our local officials this way. Even then, it was challenged and taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1979 (that’s right, we’ve only used this system since the ’70s). So, is it wrong to support the candidates you really like and ignore the others, even if it means not casting all of your possible votes? Some seem to think so, because that isn’t what Rome had in mind when we established this unique system. I think, however, it points to problems with the way we elect our city officials in the first place, as it leads to a great deal of confusion for many voters who see a large number of challengers in a multi-seat race with confusing districts. Many just stay home (usually less than 20 percent of Romans vote in city elections), some not even knowing there’s an election in what is otherwise an “off” year, and sometimes leaving races uncompetitive. We even infamously cancelled a city election a few years ago because not enough candidates ran.
Obviously, that was the right decision to make, since we didn’t need to waste the money on an election, but how unfortunate is it that so few people were involved in our city government? Thankfully, we have many active candidates this cycle, but people still seem put off by the way these elections are run, and we won’t know until election day if the plethora of candidates will translate into a higher voter turnout.
So, while some people believe this might be an abuse of the voting rules, I think it really speaks to how the rules no longer work for us, and that we should take a serious look at amending our city charter to establish a more straight-forward and engaging system that invites everyday Romans into the important work of local government, instead of causing them to stay away. In the meantime, exercise your right to vote for who you want, and make sure your voice is heard at the ballot box tomorrow.
Ben Amis lives in Rome and volunteers as a local Democratic activist. He studied theology at Asbury University and accounting at GNTC.