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Jeffrey Bennett is author of New Jersey Education Aid and writes about budgets, migration trends, the economy, and structural problems in government.
When we elect Boards of Education in New Jersey we take for granted that every voter has as many votes as there are open seats, that voters can’t rank which candidates they like best, and whichever candidates get the most votes win. Depending on BOE size, our BOE elections have two winners or three winners, but despite the BOEs being inherently multimember institutions, “most votes” wins.
Simple as that.
To Americans “most vote wins” is synonymous with voting itself. Few would even know that the method we use to elect BOEs is called “plurality block vote” because alternative voting types are never discussed in the American context. While Americans take plurality block voting for granted, we shouldn’t, because our system has some glaring undemocratic and anti-democratic features.
Although New Jersey lacks an initiative process and is a graveyard for structural political reform, there is a glimmer of hope from a handful of pro-reform legislators who have authored a bill to allow proportional representation in NJ’s BOE elections.
The bill is known as A5039/S3369 and would establish Ranked Choice Voting for BOE elections, which, when used in multicandidate elections, is known as “Single Transferable Vote (STV).”
In Single Transferable Vote, voters would rank BOE candidates in their order of preference. Voters would not be limited to two or three votes, like they are under the plurality block vote system, but could rank all the candidates running, even if there was a large electoral field, From a voter perspective, all that is required is ranking candidates, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 etc.
In STV there is a threshold for being elected. In a three-winner election, the quota for winning is one-quarter of the votes; in a two-winner election the quota would be one-third. If a candidate reaches the quota for being a winner on first-choice votes, the surplus votes for that candidate are redistributed to other candidates based on their voters’ second choice preferences. When other candidates receive enough votes to get them over the threshold, they are elected too.
If all the seats are filled by redistributing votes from the first round winner(s), the election is over, but if other candidates cannot reach a quota for being a winner, the second, third etc choice votes of the last-place finishers are re also redistributed to other candidates based on second, third, fourth etc choices. Although this method is more complicated than our regular “most votes wins” electoral method, it is used in several other countries, including Ireland, several Australian states, localities in Canada, localities in Scotland, and localities in New Zealand. As you can see, children in Ireland don’t have a hard time understanding it, so it isn’t complex once you get past the initial introduction. STV used to be used in many localities in the US including the now-defunct NYC Community Schools Boards, but, lamentably, the only place that still uses it is Cambridge, Massachusetts, although Portland, Oregon just voted to implement STV with electoral districts of three members.
STV would solve several problems in our plurality block voting electoral system that we just take for granted, but which should be seen as undemocratic.
- Under plurality block voting a candidate slate can win all the available seats even if it is only a small majority or even a plurality. Under STV, sweeps would only occur in an outcome when the winning ticket is over 75% in a three-candidate election, or 67% in a two-candidate election. Thus, there would not be the scenario where a ticket that only has a small majority wins all three seats and the minority is unrepresented. Thus, STV would provide for greater diversity of representation. It is plausible that in a three-seat election that the three winners might come from three different BOE factions.
|Plurality Block Vote and Artificial Landslides: Although Slate A is Just a Modest Majority, They Win All Three Seats|
|Votes for Slate A||Votes for Slate B|
- There would be no advantage for candidates running on a three-candidate ticket over a two-candidate ticket or a one-candidate ticket.
Under plurality block voting a three-candidate ticket has an advantage over a two-candidate ticket because some voters who prefer the two-candidate ticket make a third vote anyway and thereby dilute their real preferences. Since the plurality block vote system cannot distinguish between a first, second, and third choice vote, making a third vote half-nullifies the voter’s real preference in a three-winner election. Under the status quo, it’s possible for a three-candidate ticket with less first & second choice support to defeat and even sweep a two-candidate ticket, depending on how evenly the third votes are distributed.
|Plurality Block Vote Dilution:What if There is a BOE election between a Three-Candidate Slate and a Two-Candidate Slate and People Only Vote for Whom they Actually Like||But What if Just Half of the Voters Who Really Prefer the Two-Candidate Slate (525 people) Vote for People on the Three Candidate Slate and Vote Equally for the Three Candidates, The Three Candidate Slate Sweeps|
|Votes for a Two Candidate Slate||Votes for a Three Candidate Slate||Votes for a Two Candidate Slate||Votes for a Three Candidate Slate|
But under STV it is the first-choice votes that are counted first. If a singleton candidate reaches the quota, he or she is elected (Period).. The second, third, fourth choice votes that their voters made cannot impair the singleton candidate’s ability to win. There is no vote dilution effect in STV like there is in plurality block vote.
- There would be more democratic results when there are twice as many candidates as there are open seats. Right now, if there are more than six candidates it’s possible that there is a “spoiler effect” and of the same ideological preference will dilute their votes by giving them to four or more candidates. When this happens, it is possible for BOE members who don’t represent the real majority to prevail. Under STV, where voters can rank more than three candidates, the spoiler effect would not exist.
|Plurality Block Vote Spoiler Effect: If Liberals and Conservatives Were ~50:50, But there were More candidates on One Side than the Other, the Side with More Candidates Would be Weakened Due to the Spoiler Effect|
• Anti-voting would be more efficient. By “anti-voting,” I mean the ability of voters to strategically vote for a candidate whom they don’t really like in order to prevent the election of someone they consider really unacceptable.
We all understand intuitively how strategic anti-voting works in a single-winner election, where we “hold our noses” and vote for the viable candidate we dislike less in order to prevent the election of the candidate we can’t stand (hence we have a two-party system in state & national elections), but there is no efficient way to do this in most BOE elections when there are more than two additional candidates than seats. Furthermore, since there is no polling in BOE races, voters would not be able to vote strategically because they would not know who the viable candidates are.
Are There Downsides?
From the voter perspective, STV is just ranking candidates, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc, but understanding vote counting and the determination of the winners is more confusing than under “most votes wins.” Despite the additional complexity, STV’s stability in other countries that use it such as Ireland makes me think that voters would get used to STV once it were adopted. It isn’t like STV would be remotely as complex as the tax code, buying a home with a mortgage, or the intricate checks & balances of the US Constitution, which ordinary citizens do understand.
A possible downside of using STV is that Boards of Education would become more ideologically diverse and thus less united. Conservatives could be elected in liberal towns, and liberals could be elected in conservative towns. BOE members could dissent from consensus issues which are rarely challenged publicly today. For instance, would districts elect BOE members who prioritize taxpayers and not students? Would districts elect BOE members who challenge the effectiveness of the social justice initiatives that school administrators tend to like? Although BOE consensus is a good thing, the negative side of the consensus coin is “groupthink.”
In my opinion, the relative unity of Boards of Education is an electorally artificial one and the benefits of having an entire community represented outweigh the downsides that will arise from ideological diversity. Dissenting minorities would have a voice, but not power, since under proportional representation they would not be a majority unless they really are a majority.
New Jersey and America’s boards of education have significant democratic deficits across multiple dimensions, I would consider the socioeconomic skew that comes from relying on unpaid volunteers to also be a major problem. Proportional representation solves the unrepresentativeness that arises from plurality block vote and paired with other reforms, firstly providing a small stipend to BOE members, could make Boards of Education more democratic bodies. Perhaps if proportional representation is successful for boards of education, it could be a first step in adopting it for state legislatures and Congress.