On the Ballot: A Proposal to Change the Way St. Louis Votes


Supporters say Prop D will modernize voting and make it more representative. - COURTESY OF STL APPROVES
  • Supporters say Prop D will modernize voting and make it more representative.

A proposal on the November ballot could shake up the structure of St. Louis elections, changing the way we vote in city races and making general elections relevant again.

For decades, the city’s Democratic primaries have been winner-take-all affairs with the victors all but assured to dominate the general election. But cities across the country have begun to move away from what’s known as a partisan model of voting toward an open system, where primaries aren’t separated by political party. Today, St. Louis is among just 20 percent of municipalities still using the partisan system. That would change if Proposition D passes, shifting the city to a non-partisan system.

At the forefront of the battle for an open election system is STL Approves, an organization incepted in 2018. Pioneered by a group of concerned community members, particularly Washington University graduate student Tyler Schlichenmeyer, the group made it their mission for the outcome of St. Louis elections to match the intent of voters.

This undertaking led them to create Proposition D. The ballot measure would change the St. Louis election system so that the top two vote getters, regardless of party, would face off in the general election.

After an eighteen-month long signature campaign, STL Approves is finally able to put the measure on the ballot in November. In the meantime, their team is working diligently to spread the word about Prop D to city voters.

Mallory Rusch, campaign manager for STL Approves, is among those who believes St. Louis’ elections are outdated. When asked where she thinks the current election system is lacking, she sighs and says, “How much time do you have?”

“The entirety of our election system is very flawed,” she says. “Having a partisan municipality system really takes away choice and voice from voters.”

In a partisan system, a voter must declare themselves a member of a certain political party and is then given that party’s corresponding ballot. One candidate is selected from each party and moves on to the general election contest between the parties. Given Democrats’ overwhelming dominance in city politics, whoever wins the Democratic primary is nearly guaranteed to win the general election.

“Right now, the general election in St. Louis is essentially meaningless. And voters know that,” Rusch says. “They know the general election is just a rubber stamping of the winner of the Democratic primary in March.”

Rusch says that’s the reason only 10 percent of voters turned out in the last general election.

“Folks chose not to participate because right now, we have so much vote-splitting going on between candidates,” she says, “people are able to be elected with less than 40, or even sometimes less than 30 percent of the vote.”

“With having leaders that don’t have broad support from the public, they don’t have a real mandate to govern, they don’t have a real mandate to lead,” Rusch says.

In a non-partisan system, a voter can select multiple candidates that align with their values from a list. Then, in a runoff election, the two candidates with the highest votes, regardless of party, compete for the position.

The idea is that a non-partisan system would ensure that the candidate with the most popular support was elected and guard against a third-place or fourth-place candidate splitting the vote in the primary.

It’s possible such a system could have changed the result in the last mayor’s race. In a crowded primary, then-Alderwoman Lyda Krewson edged out Treasurer Tishaura Jones by 879 votes. Had they both gone on to the general election for a head-to-head matchup, there’s a good chance Jones could have picked up enough votes that had gone in the primary to a trio of challengers — aldermen Antonio French, Jeffrey Boyd and Lewis Reed — to win. As it was, Krewson won the primary with 32 percent of the vote and cruised through the general election, winning by 50 percentage points.

“We feel like the city is going to be much better led if we have leaders that have broad support from the community,” Rusch says.

The non-partisan system can be seen in big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Phoenix. Critics of this system cite that the absence of a party label may confuse voters, leaving those who are not well-versed in the candidates to choose based on name alone. Still, supporters believe an open system is more democratic.

If passed, Prop D would go into effect ten days after the November election. The new system would be implemented in time for the municipal elections in April, including that of the mayor, comptroller and fourteen aldermanic positions.

Rusch insists that the races for these sixteen slots are crucial to the city this election cycle.

“State and federal elections get more media attention, so people perceive them to be more important — even though actually local elections have much more of a day-to-day effect on peoples’ lives than state and federal elections often do,” Rusch says.

STL Approves remains hopeful that Proposition D will reinvigorate St. Louis voters to head to the polls in April, just as they do in November.

In the meantime, the STL Approves team is attempting to get the word out about Prop D before election day through media ads, door-to-door information drop offs, a texting campaign and more.

After months of work on this project, to see Prop D change the existing system would mean that Rusch’s efforts came to fruition.

“I would be elated, as a lifelong city resident and voter to know that I get to go to the polls in the spring and know that my voice is really heard in the upcoming elections,” she says.

As for what’s next for STL Approves, they plan to focus their efforts on increasing vote participation in the next election in April. Rusch is hopeful it will be St. Louis’ first non-partisan election in history. For now, the fate of Proposition D lies in the hands of St. Louis voters come November 3.

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