Columbia’s mayoral race is an accident waiting to happen

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 25, 2022

Ranked-choice voting should come to Columbia when the April 5 mayoral race goes the way I expect, and we elect a candidate with less than majority support.

That race could be another data point showing that simple voting is simply not giving voters the most preferred candidates. This is one of those “academic” ideas that has been around for decades but doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It matters.

It’s likely Bill Clinton would not have been elected president in 1992, nor George W. Bush in 2000, if we had ranked-choice voting. This is not a partisan idea.

Most elections in America are determined by which candidate gets the most votes. That’s fine if there are just two candidates because the top candidate will have a majority of the vote — 50% plus 1. If there are three or more candidates, things get interesting with the winner receiving only a plurality of the vote. It’s possible that the “most preferred” candidate does not win. In a democratic election, the candidate with the strongest preference should be elected, not the candidate who slips by because the other candidates split the vote.

Let’s say there are two alternatives for deciding a school, or retirement center, song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and a short version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Pretend the sophisticated student body is learning toward Beethoven, with 60% to 40%. But I, a devoted Springsteen fan, convince the principal that Beethoven’s Fifth should also be on the ballot. The Beethoven devotees might split their votes with 30% for the Ninth Symphony and 30% for the Fifth and Bruce wins with 40% of the vote. Good for Bruce fans, but the majority of the school preferred Beethoven over Bruce 60 to 40.

Often people realize this situation in organizations to which they belong. I realized it in eighth grade when I persuaded a student to run for student council president because the two acknowledged favorites, who were cousins, would split the vote and “my candidate” would win. That’s what happened.

When I shared this story in my Mizzou political science classes over the years, heads nod and students say, “We did that, too.” I told them “Yep, it happens all the time.” Often in schools it’s a gender thing — two boys running against one girl in junior high increases the odds for the girl.

A solution is “ranked-choice voting,” where, rather than just selecting one option, voters rank all the candidates in order of most preferred to least preferred.

If no candidate wins a majority, the candidate who finishes last is eliminated and their votes are distributed according to the voters’ preference. In my silly Beethoven-Springsteen contest, it’s likely that Beethoven devotees would rank the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies their top two choices and Springsteen in third place. Springsteen would be eliminated and the votes he received would then be distributed according to his voters’ next preference.

Ranked-choice voting is a better alternative than a runoff election because it requires only one election, saving administrative and campaign costs, and maintains voter interest.

I’m not the first Missourian columnist to write about this. Last August, Joshua Holzer asked: is it time for Missouri to adopt rank-choice voting and in 2016, Steve Spellman argued that reform in city elections could solve a number of voter dilemmas.

Back more than 20 years ago, a local resident, Henry Lane, conducted his own campaign for “instant runoff voting.” He often set up a table at the Earth Day festival and other local events asking citizens to fill out a sample ballot and demonstrated how to drop the least favorite candidate and distribute that last place candidate’s vote to the remaining candidates in order of the voter’s preference.

Lane did his demonstration with pencil and paper but now, of course, computer programs can do the job in a jiffy.

This idea for voting reform is catching on across the nation. Ranked-choice voting was used in the recent New York City mayoral race and has been adopted in 50 jurisdictions, including Alaska, Maine, and Washington, D.C.

There is now a national organization, Fair Vote, that is having a free online webinar, “How will we win in 2022” at 4 p.m. CT this Monday. 

This gets us back to Columbia’s April 5 mayoral election. There are five candidates on the ballot: Barbara Buffaloe, Tanya Heath, Randy Minchew, Maria Oropallo and David Seamon. With five nonincumbent candidates, the chances of a majority winner is slight.

Moreover, based on the 2020 presidential vote in Columbia, the city is about 60% Democrat and 40% Republican. To the extent that at least three, and probably four, of the mayoral candidates seem to lean Democratic, it’s likely they will split the 60% Democratic vote.

My hunch is that no candidate will receive 40%, probably not even 35%. As this is a nonpartisan election, there is no party primary and no political party official endorsement to rank these five candidates. I have seen no voter survey, but my hunch is this is a wide-open race. That may be good for NCAA’s March Madness or a horse race, but “good government” requires a little more thoughtfulness and order and less chance.

The most immediate implication of having five candidates for mayor is that whoever is elected will likely start as a minority mayor with more votes against than for. That leads to more criticism, more distrust and more cynicism.

We should have a voting system where the most preferred candidate wins, not one where the number of candidates affects the outcome. It’s the electoral system, not the candidates, that is the problem.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Columbia Public Library Union: Yes or No?

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 19, 2022

Columbia Public Library, officially a branch of the Daniel Boone Regional Library (DBRL), is a long-time cherished local institution. It was surprising to learn DBRL employees are in the midst of organizing a union.

DBRL is unique in important ways. It is one of 15% of American libraries that are “independent.” It has its own source of revenue, the local property tax, and its own board of trustees. DBRL is not part of the city or county government, although the heads of those governing institutions do name the board of trustees, who serve three-year terms.

I was honored to serve on the DBRL Board of Trustees from 2007-2013, the last year as the board president. It was certainly my impression that the library was a happy place to work.

I recall much staff, administrator and trustee interaction. I don’t recall, however, any “official staff advisory council” that provided feedback to the library board of trustees. During my board experience, DBRL had a stable, long-time senior staff and accommodated many part-time employees.

I deliberately chose not to talk with any DBRL employee or trustee about organizing a union since the announcement on Feb. 4. I’ve read the DBRL Workers United website, listened to the six speeches at the beginning of last week’s Board meeting, and read several related news articles. I will certainly be looking for conversations as this issue is resolved.

Several things have changed in the nine years since I was board president. DBRL has grown from 124 employees to 190 in four different branches — Columbia, Fulton, Ashland and Holt Summit — in the past decade. There is a new director and assistant director, and most department heads have turned over due to retirements. There is more information technology and there is COVID-19, COVID-19 and more COVID-19.

Outward signs are that DBRL is still a nice place to work. Just in the past few months when local business struggled to fill job openings, the public library had no trouble staying at full strength.

I am generally pro worker organizations but am uncertain about DBRL employees’ affiliation with a national union. DBRL is a 190-employee local organization, mostly located in one building, with diverse worker responsibilities ranging from circulation and re-shelving to IT consultants, reference librarians and organization support such as public relations and human resources. In Columbia’s economy, DBRL is more like MU’S College of Business or School of Law than it is Columbia College or certainly Veterans United or Shelter Insurance.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the American economy and society has been searching for an appropriate way to address the expectations and needs of Gen X and Millennial workers. Whether it is Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, congressional staffers or MU graduate students, service employees in a gig economy with critical worker shortages need some form of association to have their shared interests represented.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is trying to organize cultural workers in libraries, zoos and museums. To date, they show no unionized libraries in Missouri. Why should DBRL be the first?

DBRL employee affiliation with a national union will likely increase non-local interests and issues into a local organization. The proposed affiliation with AFSCME will add an organization concerned with its own image and promotion. They are already using DBRL employees to promote their cause, rather than the interests of citizens of Boone and Callaway counties.

Additionally, formal representation in the collective bargaining process is bound to increase bureaucracy and likely to increase labor costs. If, at some point in the future, DBRL employees have second thoughts about a union, a decertification election under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board could be held. Because DBRL is solely funded by local property taxes, its overall financial situation could change quickly.

The DBRL Workers United mission statement lists three primary concerns:

Equitable pay; parental and sick leave; and affordable health care and benefits.

Professional and interdepartmental development; and opportunity for career advancement for all employees.

Safety, security and healthy practices at our workplace that protect both our physical and mental well-being.

DBRL has existing policies about patron behavior. If they are lax or inadequate, I expect the board would welcome improvements. Similarly, a cursory comparison of DBRL’s leave policies finds they are in step with two major COMO employers, the City of Columbia and Mizzou, and that it is based on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act providing up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protection and requiring the employee to use accrued leave before requesting additional unpaid leave.

Several speakers before the DBRL board and in an op-ed disagreed with the tome and tenor of DBRL Worker United claims and surrounding media coverage. One speaker described the previous week as the most conflictual of her DBRL career due to union organizing with a union organizer adding workplace stress while collecting union supporting signatures.

The DBRL Board should hold a public meeting to hear detailed support for the requests for equitable pay, safer working conditions and related concerns after asking if all other means to address their concerns have been exhausted.

Additionally, the Board should examine the experience of other library districts that have unionized. Then the Board should carefully consider if unionizing will improve services to the DBRL public.

_______________________

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.



Distributing socks provides street-level view of community

David Webber, February 12, 2022

Bombas, an international company, advertises, “Buy a pair of our socks and we will donate a pair to the homeless.” Indeed it does. I’ve received 5,000 pairs last year and 14,000 pairs so far this season that I’ve distributed around Columbia. It’s likely I can receive twice as many next year — if I have a plan.

Two years ago, my former Mizzou student Doug Cowan, now president and CEO of Community Services League of Independence, posted on Facebook that he had received thousands of Bombas socks to distribute to social services agencies in Missouri and Kansas.

I replied that I am ”just a volunteer” at several homeless services in Columbia, but I would take responsibility for distributing 500 pairs, although I had no idea how I would distribute more than 100.

He replied, “Heck, if you drive all the way over here, you might as well take 5,000 pairs.” Against my better judgment, I accepted that challenge.

Through my homeless volunteering, I know that socks are needed because they easily wear out, get lost, get forgotten and become wet. I’ve seen lots of feet in shoes and sandals, even in the winter, without socks and needing attention.

Socks may seem trivial, but they are not. In addition to the part socks play in protecting human comfort and safety, the biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is not lost on me.

A minivan can hold 5,000 socks if you break open the last few boxes and shove them into any open spaces. A home garage can hold 20 boxes at 250 pairs per box, if you don’t have exercise equipment and a lawn mower.

This past year’s 14,000 pairs required more space. My first instinct was to rent a storage shed to hold them. I thought if there is one person in town who could find a better solution, it would be Jane Williams at Love Columbia.

I called her; she said, “Give me a day or two to find a solution.” She arranged with Memorial Baptist Church to store socks in an empty classroom that wasn’t in use because of fewer churchgoers due to COVID-19.

Turning Point was an obvious starting point to receive a couple hundred pairs, as was Room at the Inn and Harbor House. I was uneasy with dropping off boxes of socks to organizations with hopes the socks would automatically end up on feet. I didn’t want to be stingy, but I did want to be a good steward of a limited resource.

Then I thought of children’s services. I Googled, emailed and learned about Boys and Girls Club, Rainbow House and Nourish. When I dropped socks off, I asked the staff about their organization, their clientele and how they were dealing with COVID-19. Several wanted me to fill out a donor form, and I explained, “I’m just the distributor; I am not the donor.”

I knew to contact “Everybody Eats” at Thanksgiving, an activity started by former city council member Almeta Crayton and continued by Powerhouse Community Development. This was a great find because I learned about that organization’s role in providing social services for groups often overlooked.

I came upon a flier that Operation Safe Winter was having a camping equipment distribution at Flat Branch Park on a November Sunday morning. Several hundred pairs of socks looked small next to the 50 tents and stacks of sleeping bags donated by a local sports store.

Socks were taken with gratitude by people who had a hard winter ahead. That project introduced me to several people who have been feeding homeless campers for several winters and have been activists for keeping Wabash Station open on cold nights.

Had it not been for socks, I would not have become aware of many unrecognized individuals who support the homeless such as the volunteers at Loaves and Fishes as well as Room at the Inn.

About 25 years ago, I learned that many elementary teachers provide a change of clothes for students who need them. So I distributed socks to several schools where I was welcomed by their principals and given a tour of their clothing storage rooms. Many individuals and organizations make efforts to help students who can use extra food and warmer clothes.

I distributed socks to True North, United Way, City of Refuge and Catholic Relief Services for newly-arriving Afghan refugees and to the Salvation Army and Voluntary Action Center to add to their Christmas packages. Socks give me a reason to learn more about these organizations.

Perhaps my biggest surprise came when I replied to posts in a Facebook group called “Working Together to Improve Columbia” from three women who were collecting clothes and food that they were distributing to people in need. I arranged to drop off several hundred pairs of socks in a safe, public place and learned about their efforts. 

The most memorable contacts socks provided are the approximately 500 pairs I handed directly to men and women at Loaves and Fishes and on the streets of Columbia.

One familiar guy told me, “Yeah, I like those socks. I’m wearing them today.” Sometimes I heard “Can I have another pair for my friend?” One guy accepted a pair as he pulled up his pant leg to reveal he had no socks and said, “Thanks.” I’ve seen Bombas socks in their backpacks and on their cots in Room at the Inn.

Socks are minor compared to warm coats, a strong backpack and a place to live. But distributing socks can put you in touch with people we often see and whom many Columbians want to “do something” for, but don’t know what to do.

You’ll be changed by being in close contact with the homeless. You won’t be as patient with the status quo. You will better understand why several homeless advocates spoke passionately, and very harshly, about Wabash Station at the city council meeting last week. As for me, I’m better suited for distributing socks.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Amanda Gorman’s new book of poetry is engaging, hopeful

David Webber, Columbia Missourian, February 4, 2022

Amanda Gorman caught America’s attention reciting poems at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration and at the 2021 Super Bowl. Her full-length book of poems, “Call Us What We Carry,” has just been published. It is an engaging collection of a wide variety of topics and formats.

I am no expert about poetry, but I enjoy her verbal creativity and appreciate her generational and racial insights. I remember my high school English teacher lecturing that “you shouldn’t speed read a poem, you should wade through it, letting the words roll around.” Gorman’s words flow so fluidly and usually so simply. For example, she writes, “It’s easy to harp, harder to hope.” Isn’t that the truth?

Like presidential oratory, public poetry has a lower place in American public discourse than it once did. I do remember two other presidential poets — Robert Frost reading “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration and Maya Angelou reading “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 swearing-in, but Gorman feels different.

Frost and Angelou were well-established, recognized senior poets at the top of their craft who brought gravitas to two young, boyish incoming presidents. On the other hand, Gorman was a little-known representative of Generation Z who stole the show on a day of great uncertainty, attempting to connect today’s youth with a very old incoming president.

Gorman was an up-and-comer before Biden’s inauguration by virtue of her Fourth of July appearance on “CBS This Morning” in 2019 reciting her “Believer’s Hymn for the Republic,” a delightful mix of history and hope that characterizes many of her poems. “CBS This Morning” featured her again in April 2020 to perform “The Miracle of Morning,” which is in her new book about our collective and individual efforts to deal with the pandemic.

“Call Us What We Carry” includes 73 poems, most I understood, some I don’t. It is divided into seven sections representing different aspects of our history. My first interpretation of “what we carry” imagined physical loads like supplies and passengers, boxes and bundles, but I quickly realized Gorman means memories, experiences, trauma, lessons, historical interpretations, accomplishments and failures are “what we carry.”

Many Americans recall Gorman reciting “The Hill We Climb” at the Biden inauguration. That poem is included in her new book, allowing the reader to reread and savor her words that captured the historical significance of that day. She began: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, ‘Where we can find light in this never-ending shade?’” She acknowledged that America is “far from polished, far from pristine,” but ended with her pronouncing hope in the closing lines:

“The new dawn blooms as we free it,

For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Gorman uses several different formats to present her poems. Some are written in traditional form, some are diagrams and dialogues. Two that caught my eye are concrete poems, or visual poems, where the arrangement of words suggests the meaning of the poem.

Gorman’s “America,” presented in the shape of our flag, and “Masks,” with words arranged in the form of a mask, ask “who were we beneath our masks?” Three other concrete poems are formatted as a text message, the U.S. Capitol and an eyeball.

Her book is also unusual in that it has 12 pages of notes explaining many of the historical references in the poems.

Perhaps the most timely, most powerful of her poems is “Fury and Faith,” about present day race-related protests often portrayed by images of Black Lives Matter. Two stanzas stopped my reading as I dwelled on her succinct insights. The first memorable stanza is:

“But the point of protest is not winning.

It’s holding to the promise of freedom,

Even when fast victory is not promised.”

The second is:

“Our Goal is never revenge, just restoration,

Not dominance, just dignity,

Not fear, just freedom,

Just justice”

Gorman’s Super Bowl poem, “Chorus of Captains,” is not in her new book but should have been. In it, she celebrates three ordinary citizens: one a wounded vet, one an educator, one an ICU nurse, whom she refers to as the three captains for the day. It’s about three normal people on a normal day. Her poem ends:

“Let us walk with these warriors,

Charge on with these champions,

And carry forth the call of our captains!

We celebrate them by acting

With courage and compassion,

By doing what is right and just.

For while we honor them today,

It is they who every day honor us.”

Gorman reads and sounds like her times. Her poems are not stuffy and elitist, but clear and common. She recognizes historical hurt and pain, but sees the promise of a greater, more noble future. She recites like rap, but fits well with a symphony. She combines the many voices of America’s past into one clear voice for a better future. That’s something we need right now.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.