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The reality of at-large races

By Scott Tibbs, December 20, 2011

Last month, Indiana Daily Student columnist Kelly Fritz bitterly complained about a Republican city council candidate encouraging supporters to vote for him only, not any of the other candidates. While her zeal for democracy and voter participation is laudable, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the way at-large races work.

Voters can pick up to three candidates, but can also vote for two, one or none at all. If there is a candidate you enthusiastically support, it is counterproductive to vote for the candidates of the opposing party. For example, voting for a Republican and a Democrat would negate the vote for the Democrat by elevating his Republican opponent. Voting only for the Democrat elevates him while not elevating the Republican.

Republicans only had two candidates, because the former Monroe County GOP chairman failed to file the paperwork to get the third candidate on the ballot. A Republican who uses all three votes in the 2011 city council race would negate one of his votes. (This is why it is important to fill the ticket, because a lot of people automatically use all three votes.) One can debate the wisdom of only voting for one Republican instead of both, but it was certainly not advisable for Republicans to use all three votes.

I ran for delegate to the Republican state convention several times in the primary. I have encouraged friends to vote for me only, because that elevates me without elevating my opponents. When I ran for Bloomington Township Board in 2006, the primary was irrelevant because there were two of us running for three seats, but had there been more than three I would have encouraged supporters to vote only for me. In the general election, after the GOP filled the final spot on the ballot in a caucus, I voted for all three Republicans and encouraged others to do the same. We were all annihilated anyway.

It is not anti-democratic to not use all your votes in an at-large race. Instead, it is smart political strategery.

The GOP will need to pick up two seats on the county council in order to win a majority, which is highly unlikely. The last time Republicans won two at-large seats was 2000, and the party has self destructed since then. It would not surprise me if the Republicans fail to fill all three spots on the ballot for county council at-large. If that happens, Republicans would be wise to educate Republican voters and conservative independents about why voting for only the one or two Republicans best advances the cause of getting Republicans elected.