In The News › Charter change on Orleans ballot ; At-large races would be held separately

Charter change on Orleans ballot ; At-large races would be held separately

By Bruce Eggler
The Times-Picayune

When Orleans Parish voters decide Nov. 6 whether to amend the City Charter to change the way at-large members of the City Council are elected, they will write the final chapter in a strange political saga. If the amendment passes, the two at-large seats would be voted on independently starting in 2014.

When the proposal was first offered this spring, it sharply divided council members and helped to bring council business to a virtual halt for more than a month. Yet by the time the council voted unanimously in June to submit the charter amendment to voters, the controversy had seemingly evaporated, and since then the issue has been virtually invisible.

Under the current system, in effect since the 1950s, candidates for both at-large, or citywide, seats run in the same field, with voters allowed to cast ballots for any two. The top two finishers are elected, provided they each get more than 25 percent of the total votes cast. If two candidates do not get 25 percent, a runoff for one or both seats is held.

The proposed change would have the at-large members elected separately, though at the same time, with all candidates having to declare which seat they are seeking when they qualify. The winners would need to get more than 50 percent of the votes for that seat in a primary or runoff.

The proposal to call an election on the amendment first came before the council on May 3, when it failed on a 3-3 vote. Three members said they wanted to study the matter further and hold more public hearings before making up their minds. That result helped spark a walkout by the council’s two black members, who did not show up for another meeting until June 7, when they reintroduced virtually the same measure. It passed on June 28 with virtually no discussion.

The debate had begun in early April when Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and interim Councilman Eric Granderson introduced an ordinance to call an election on the proposal. Hedge-Morrell and Granderson, both of whom are black, said the change would ensure that the winners get a majority of the votes cast, which they said is a basic principle of democracy, and the proposal was quickly endorsed by a long list of elected officials, most of them black.

At present, if all voters cast both at-large votes they are allowed, the requirement for 25 percent of the total votes in fact means the winners would have the support of 50 percent of the voters. But many voters — sometimes more than a third of them — choose to vote for only one at-large candidate, with the result that candidates can be elected by a minority of those taking part in the election.

Although the proposed change would seem to have no obvious racial implications, the issue became so controversial because many supporters think the change could help increase African-American representation on the council, which since 2007 has had a majority of white members, even though about 60 percent of New Orleans residents are black. Both current at-large members are white.

Many black leaders say they think white candidates sometimes have manipulated the system by encouraging their supporters, openly or tacitly, to vote for a single at-large candidate. That practice, known as “single shooting,” in effect increases the value of each vote cast for a single candidate.

However, there is no real evidence that electing the two at-large members independently would increase the likelihood black candidates would be elected. In fact, the two current white at-large members first won their seats by defeating an African-American opponent in one-on-one runoffs.

Even if the proposal passes, the current two-term limit for at-large members would remain in effect, meaning that a candidate could not serve two terms in one seat and then run for the other one.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, has taken no position on the proposal, saying that both options “have significant advantages and disadvantages.” It says the current method “gives voters the greatest choice,” since they can vote for any two at-large candidates they like, and that having to run for a specific seat could “encourage more political maneuvering by candidates” as they decide which seat to seek.

BGR notes that the proposed change would require both at-large winners to get at least 50 percent of the vote, which many people believe is a basic tenet of representative democracy. However, it points out, many U.S. presidents have been elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Locally, BGR notes, Slidell, Mandeville and Covington have single-field elections for their two at-large council members, like the current system in New Orleans, while Jefferson Parish and Kenner hold separate elections for two at-large seats, like the proposed charter change. St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes divide their two at-large seats geographically, with candidates having to run for the seat representing the part of the parish where they live.

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