How to Fix the Mayor’s Race

It’s June. The voting that matters is over. That’s a problem.

The party’s over, almost before it’s begun.

The worst thing about the Philly mayor’s race? It’s over.

Some of my journalistic colleagues who attended forum after forum and reviewed commercial after commercial no doubt feel differently. And certainly, the primary election process seemed to produce a well-qualified and forward-thinking potential mayor in the form of Jim Kenney.

But it’s June. The campaign has been over for weeks already, but a half-year remains before Kenney takes office, assuming no independent candidate emerges before November’s otherwise foregone conclusion of a general election. Which is more than enough time for him to lose any honeymoon momentum from the election he might otherwise have had — putting him (and the agenda that voters thought they were supporting) at a disadvantage when he takes office.

That’s not good for Kenney. That’s not good for the people who voted for him. And that makes it arguably bad for the city as a whole. 

So David Thornburgh, the new-ish CEO of the Committee of Seventy, was right when he took  to the pages of the Inquirer on Sunday and suggested that it’s time we figure out a new way to elect our mayors. The problem? Thornburgh isn’t quite sure of which solution to put forward. Online registration? Vote by mail? Runoff voting?

Thornburgh is on surer ground when he diagnoses the problem, though he doesn’t quite put a name to it. That problem? Philly is a one-party town, with rules and civic structures designed to reinforce that rule and tamp-down competition. Want to fix politics here? That’s where you start.

As Thornburgh says:

If you happen to be one of the 110,000 voters registered as independents, you might as well stay home on primary day because all you can do is vote on ballot questions. And given the lopsided registration, the 120,000 Republicans aren’t much better off. Essentially, Philadelphia leaves 230,000 voters out of the process of choosing their mayor and at-large City Council members, and that doesn’t seem right either.

Exactly. Philadelphia has already chosen its next mayor, for all intents and purposes — journalism doctrine requires me to acknowledge that there’s a universe, somewhere, in which Kenney’s Republican opponent might pose a real threat to election, but it’s not this one — and it’s done so while leaving a substantial portion of the electorate behind.

Just one of Thornburgh’s proposals addresses the root problem: Non-partisan, runoff voting. It’s the system, as he notes, used in the vast majority of America’s big cities — and there’s no reason Philly should think itself special enough to continue to be an exception.

Here’s how it works: The May primary would be open to all comers — Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Sam Katz, instead of waiting until days before this year’s primary to announce he wouldn’t be running in November, would’ve had to commit or de-commit months earlier. Same for Bill Green. And the May election would then allow the entire electorate to select two candidates from the entire field to square off in November.

One exception to that scenario: Most runoff systems are designed so that if the winner of the primary gets a majority of the vote in that round — more than 50 percent of the total — then the runoff round is skipped and the top vote-getter gets to take office.

Smart observers will say: “Hey, Jim Kenney got more than 50 percent of the vote!” And that’s right. But Kenney won that majority without Democratic or Republican voters in the mix, or without a Sam Katz to contend with. Who’s to say how the politics play out in an open primary? Maybe Anthony Williams would be licking his wounds, but ready to take lessons learned in the primary and apply them to November. And if Kenney had still cruised to a majority victory in that scenario, he’d be a rare care. In most cases we’d be getting debates well into fall.

The benefits: Everybody gets a shot at a meaningful vote. The election conversation continues until closer to the actual change-of-office. Voter preferences might end up being more relevant and meaningful as a result.

Jim Kenney seems like he’ll make a decent-enough mayor. He’s probably the best that Philadelphia’s political processes could choose at this point. But there are ways to improve the process.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.