EDITORIAL BY JOHN FOX
We’re No. 9! We’re No. 9!
All you need to know about what’s wrong with Cincinnati City Council elections is that every two years candidates try to finish ninth. If you can finish ninth in a citywide election here, you’re in charge.
Our glorious democratic system, called 9X, allows citi zens to vote for up to nine candidates in a field race of 25- 30 people, and the top nine vote-getters win. The No. 1 vote-getter used to get the honor of becoming mayor, but now the mayor is elected in a separate race — meaning the ninth place finisher is every bit a city council member as the top finisher.
The twin features of 9X elections and Cincinnati’s city manager form of government combine in theory — and often in practice — to force collaborative work on council.
Since every council member is elected by the entire city and the manager handles city department details, council focuses on the big picture of policy and planning.
Reality invades that happy place regularly, however — particularly at election time. And when you run for office every two years, it’s pretty much election time all the time. The reality is that citywide elections cost too much money. To win a council seat these days you have to run a comprehensive media campaign centered on TV ads, and you end up with a lot of wasted coverage in the suburbs and Northern Kentucky.
Field races boil down to name recognition, and in this instance candidates hope they have just enough familiarity among voters to finish ninth. Candidates don’t run against each other — certainly not head to head as in every other American election — and thus aren’t judged against another candidate who might have a better record or a better plan. Incumbents generally have an easy time of it in 9X. They have built-in name recognition, and they don’t have to direct ly defend or explain their current term in office since an opponent doesn’t bring it up. Two different proposals are floating around town to change how we elect council, starting with the local NAACP chapter’s signature drive to place proportional representa tion (PR) on the Nov. 4 city ballot. Meanwhile, Councilman Jeff Berding has resurrected the concept of electing council via districts and is trying to interest council colleagues in placing the plan on the ballot themselves.
PR maintains the field race aspect of council elections but allows voters to rank their selections 1 through 9. A voter’s first and second choices are weighted more than their eighth and ninth choices, offering a better chance for a voter’s favorite candidate or candidates to win. Berding’s proposal features a combination of district seats and citywide seats. The obvious appeal of districts is that a candidate can campaign easily and cheaply in a por tion of the city, run against another person head to head and actually know the district neighborhoods intimately.
I hope we get to have a good public conversation this fall about our fixation with finishing ninth.
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