Previous editions of the Model contained detailed provisions on the nomination and election process. Since the election laws of each state apply to municipalities whether or not they operate with a local charter, these provisions from earlier editions have been removed. The text on methods of electing council members that appears below has been moved from Article II in the earlier editions of the Model. Provision for nonpartisan elections and control over the timing of elections are among the few aspects of elections that remain under local discretion. Operating within the limitations imposed by state law, the city may by ordinance adopt regulations deemed desirable.
Section 6.01. City Elections.
(a) Regular Elections. The regular city election shall be held [at the time established by state law] on the first ______ [day of week], in ______ [fall or spring month of odd-or even- numbered year], and every 2 years thereafter.
(b) Registered Voter Defined. All residents legally registered under the constitution and laws of the state of _______ to vote in the city shall be registered voters of the city within the meaning of this charter.
(c) Conduct of Elections. The provisions of the general election laws of the state of ______ shall apply to elections held under this charter. All elections provided for by the charter shall be conducted by the election authorities established by law. Candidates shall run for office without party designation. For the conduct of city elections, for the prevention of fraud in such elections and for the recount of ballots in cases of doubt or fraud, the city council shall adopt ordinances consistent with law and this charter, and the election authorities may adopt further regulations consistent with law and this charter and the ordinances of the council. Such ordinances and regulations pertaining to elections shall be publicized in the manner of city ordinances generally.
(d) Ranked-Choice Voting or Proportional Representation. The council may be elected in a single election by the method of ranked-choice voting or the single transferable vote form of proportional representation.
(e) Beginning of term. The terms of council members shall begin the __ day of __ after their election.
(a-c) Although most states regulate local elections entirely or to a very substantial extent by state statutes, a local charter may provide certain variations. For example, home rule charters may provide for nonpartisan local elections as provided in this section. Traditionally, the Model has advocated separating municipal elections from state and national elections to allow a clear focus on local issues. State election laws and city charters frequently schedule municipal elections in the fall of odd-numbered years or in the spring of the year. Evidence suggests that turnout is higher during state and national elections, and some now advocate moving local elections to coincide with state and national elections to increase participation in local races. Although the Eighth Edition did not make a choice regarding holding local elections at the same time as state and national elections or in separate years, the preference for off-year elections has been reasserted by the Committee. There is an increasing risk that partisan polarization will carry over from the higher-level races to the local races even if they are supposedly nonpartisan when all elections are held at the same time. The focus on local issues is difficult to achieve with the attention being given to higher level races. Introducing methods to increase turnout in a single local election such as ranked-choice voting (RCV) is preferable to holding elections for offices at all levels of government at one time.
(d) Since the sixth edition, proportional representation (PR) via the single transferable vote method has been advocated as an alternative means for electing the council. Until 1964 (when the sixth edition of the Model City Charter was published), the Model recommended the Hare system (also known as preference voting, choice voting, and the single transferable vote system) of PR as the preferred method of electing city councils. It had been used in 22 American cities but by the early 1960s had been discarded in all but Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it is still used to elect the city council and school committee. Unquestionably, PR provides the greatest equity in representing all sectors of the community. However, the relative complexity of PR when using antiquated voting procedures and the long and expensive process of counting ballots by hand concerned some voters where it was used and initially prevented it from becoming a widespread reform measure. Now referred to as ranked-choice voting, it is used in 21 local government elections in 2021. It is a local option for adoption by local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia.
Ranked-choice voting addresses a common issue when elections are a two-stage process with either a primary before or a runoff after the general election—uneven turnout. The turnout for the primaries that narrow the field of candidates or for run-off elections if no candidate receives a majority of votes is generally lower than the general election. The use of ranked-choice voting provides an “instant runoff” that determines winners in a single election, and the Charter Committee recommends that local governments consider adopting this type of election. In 2002, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to adopt instant runoff voting to elect its mayor, board of supervisors, district attorney, city attorney, treasurer, sheriff, assessor-recorder and public defender.
There is an interest in RCV because of its potential to assure representation of minority populations and because technological developments now allow a computerized voting and counting system, thus eliminating the major objection to RCV. Voters rank candidates by preference. The method depends on creation of a winning threshold—a share of votes that each council member must receive to be elected. Election officials determine the threshold after all votes are counted, using a formula to determine the fewest number of votes that only the winning number of candidates can receive.
In Cambridge, for example, officials divide the total number of valid ballots cast by the number of positions to be elected plus one. Under this approach, in an election for nine council seats where voters cast 15,000 valid ballots, the winning threshold is 1,501, or 15,000 divided by ten, plus one. Ten candidates theoretically could receive 1,500 votes, but only nine can obtain 1,501. Once a particular candidate receives the designated threshold of first choices, ballot counters redistribute any surplus votes for that candidate to another candidate based upon the voter‘s preferential ranking. After all surplus votes are redistributed, the weakest candidate is eliminated, and ballots from that candidate are counted for the next choice candidate on those voters’ ballots. This process of redistributing votes from winning candidates and weak candidates continues until the necessary number of candidates have reached the threshold, or only nine candidates remain. In Cambridge, this has consistently led to ninety percent of voters helping to elect a candidate, more than sixty-five percent of voters having their first choice candidate win, and more than ninety-five percent of voters seeing one of their top three choices win.
There is evidence that RCV contributes to the civility of campaigning. Instead of candidates focusing on attacking their opponents, candidates perform better when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. Even though they may not get the first vote from these voters, they may get a high-ranked vote. Campaigns may be friendlier as a result. Reports on the impact of ranked-choice voting on civility in elections are available from FairVote.
More information about the mechanics of RCV can be obtained from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, www.rcvresources.org.
Section 6.02. Council Districts; Adjustment of Districts (for use with Alternatives II, III and IV of § 6.03).
(a) Number of Districts. There shall be ______ city council districts.
(b) Districting Commission; Composition; Appointment; Terms; Vacancies; Compensation.
(c) Powers and Duties of the Commission; Hearings, Submissions and Approval of Plan.
(d) Districting Plan; Criteria.
(e) Effect of Enactment.
The new city council districts and boundaries as of the date of enactment shall supersede previous council districts and boundaries for all purposes of the next regular city election, including nominations. The new districts and boundaries shall supersede previous districts and boundaries for all other purposes as of the date on which all council members elected at that regular city election take office.
With two of the three alternatives provided for the election of the city council involving districts, the provision for drawing and redrawing district lines assumes particular importance.
The process of drawing districts described in this edition and in the seventh and eighth editions differs from that of earlier editions, in response to the Voting Rights Act and related court decisions. Rather than a two-part process with an advisory commission recommending a plan, followed by city council passage of a plan (which might or might not resemble that of the advisory commission), the Model provides for a more direct process – redistricting by an independent commission. The lead time for redistricting should provide sufficient time to resolve some of the increasing number of local government redistricting suits and allow sufficient time to comply with the requirements of § 5 of the Voting Rights Act if applicable. In addition, the Model provides for ordered, specific criteria for redistricting based on population rather than the “qualified voter” standard of the sixth edition.
The Model provides for a bipartisan commission. Even cities with nonpartisan elections may have problems with political parties (either local or national) wanting to dominate the process to achieve advantage. To facilitate the commission’s ability to work together despite partisan differences, the Model recommends that the four council appointees (and mandates that at least three of the four) agree on the choice of chairman. Once the bipartisan commission submits its plan to the city council, the council can neither approve nor veto the result. This avoids the conflict of interest created when council members consider new districts whose lines may materially affect their political futures. The council may, however, prevent implementation of the plan if it finds the plan in violation of the charter and files with the courts for such a determination.
Subsection (d) lists the criteria that the commission must abide by when it draws the new districts. The criteria are designed to preclude gerrymandering that either protects or punishes incumbents or that prevents particular voting groups from gaining power. With the proper ordered criteria, the redistricting process is less open to manipulation. Flagrant gerrymandering will be almost impossible without a clear violation of the mandated criteria. The criteria concerning waterways and islands should be included in charters where appropriate. The exact terminology for election administration subdivisions (e.g., wards or equivalent subdivisions) should be adjusted to conform to state law. Depending on the jurisdiction, wards and districts sometimes have the same meaning and sometimes have different meanings.
Some cities prefer that the city council perform redistricting. This may stem from a belief that the redistricting process essentially involves a series of political decisions, and that attempts to separate the process from the politics is futile and foolish. Or, where the city council has historically performed this function without causing unrest, such a preference may derive from the sense that there is no need for change. When a city opts for redistricting by the city council, the following provisions should be substituted in § 6.02(b) and (c) and a new § 6.02(d) be added as follows.
(b) Council to Redistrict. Following each decennial census, the city council shall, by ordinance, adjust the boundaries of the city council districts using the criteria set forth in § 6.02(e).
(d) Failure to Enact Ordinance. If the city council fails to enact a redistricting plan within the required time, the city attorney shall, the following business day, inform the ______ Court, ______ County, and ask that a special master be appointed to do the redistricting. The special master shall, within sixty days, provide the Court with a plan drawn in accordance with the criteria set forth in § 6.02(e). That plan shall have the force of law unless the court finds it does not comply with said criteria. The court shall cause an approved plan to go into effect no later than 210 days prior to the first regular city election after the decennial census. The city shall be liable for all reasonable costs incurred by the special master in preparing the plan for the court.
Subsections 6.03(d) and (e) of the Model should be retained, relettered (e) and (f), respectively, and the words “city council” substituted for “commission.”
Subsection 6.03(d) of the substitute language (Failure to Enact Ordinance) gives incentive for the council to complete redistricting on time. Failure to redistrict will not result in another election using the old districts, as earlier editions provided. Even the most divided of city councils would probably prefer to compromise than have a special master redistrict for them—and few would want to explain the additional cost of paying someone else to draw up a plan that probably would not improve upon their own compromise.
Section 6.03. Methods of Electing Council Members.
The text in this section complements the information on the composition of the council found in Article II, § 2.02(c).
Alternative I –Mixed At-Large and Single Member District System; Mayor Elected Separately
At the first election under this charter ______ council members shall be elected; all district candidates and the ______ at-large candidates receiving the greatest number of votes shall serve for terms of four years, and the ______ at-large candidates receiving the next greatest number of votes shall serve for terms of two years. Commencing at the next regular election and at all subsequent elections, all council members shall be elected for four-year terms.
Alternative II – Single-Member District System; Mayor Elected Separately.
At the first election under this charter ______ council members shall be elected; council members from odd-numbered districts shall serve for terms of two years, and council members from even-numbered districts shall serve for terms of four years. Commencing at the next regular election and at all subsequent elections, all council members shall serve for terms of four years.
Limited Alternative III –Council Elected At Large; Mayor Elected Separately.
At the first election under this charter ______ council members shall be elected; the ______ [one-half the number of council members] candidates receiving the greatest number of votes shall serve for terms of four years, and the ______ [one-half the number of council members] candidates receiving the next greatest number of votes shall serve for terms of two years. Commencing at the next regular election and at all subsequent elections, all council members shall be elected for four-year terms.
In all the alternatives, the mayor is elected at large as provided in Alternative II of § 2.03. The preferred alternatives include district representation to ensure that all parts of the community are represented and have a voice on the council. In most cities, racial minorities and lower-income groups are concentrated in selected neighborhoods, so districts elections are crucial to representativeness. There are advantages in having a minority of members who represent the city as a whole. Some cities nominate the candidates for district representation in a primary open only to voters within each district but use a general election in which all voters in the city choose which nominee will be elected to the council from each district. This method obviously strengthens the at-large orientation of the city council while assuring that council members live in all the council districts. Cities that use or consider using this method should be aware of the possibility that the candidate preferred in the district or representing the majority racial or ethnic group in the district may not be chosen by the voters citywide. The same majority can elect all the members of the council. This method also requires a two-election process and precludes a single election with an instant runoff. The totally at-large council is called a limited alternative III because it should only be used in small and homogeneous cities or one in which all segments of the population are intermixed in all parts of the city. Even in a city that is fully integrated, using ranked-choice voting can help to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented on the council.
Section 6.04. Initiative, Referendum, and Recall.
(a) Alternative I – Provisions Provided by State Law. The powers of initiative, referendum, and recall are hereby reserved to the electors of the city.
Alternative II – General Authority for Initiative, Referendum, and Recall.
(b) Commencement of Proceeding: Petitioners’ Committee; Affidavit. Any five of city’s registered voters entitled to vote in city elections may commence initiative, referendum, or recall proceedings by filing with the city clerk an affidavit stating they will constitute the petitioners’ committee and be responsible for circulating the petition and filing it in proper form, stating their names and addresses and specifying the address to which all notices to the committee are to be sent, and setting out in full the proposed initiative ordinance, citing the legislation sought to be reconsidered, or stating the name and title of the officer sought to be recalled accompanied by a statement, not to exceed 200 words, of the reasons for the recall. Grounds for recall should relate to and affect the administration of the official’s office and be of a substantial nature directly affecting the rights and interests of the public.
Promptly after receipt of a recall petition, the clerk shall serve, personally or by certified mail, a copy of the affidavit on the elected officer sought to be recalled. Within 10 days of service of the affidavit, the elected officer sought to be recalled may file a statement with the city clerk, not to exceed 200 words, in response. Promptly after the affidavit of the petitioners’ committee is filed, and the response, if any, of the elected official sought to be recalled is filed, the clerk shall submit the proposed initiative, proposed referendum petition and recall petition to the city attorney for review.
The city attorney must issue an opinion on the legality of the initiative, referendum, and recall and if the city attorney determines them to be legal shall provide the clerk with a title of the measure to be included on the petition and which will also be the title to be included on any ballot should the petition be sufficient. The clerk shall then issue the appropriate petition blanks to the petitioners’ committee for those measures the city attorney determines are legally sufficient.
(d) Procedure after Filing.
(e) Referendum Petitions; Suspension of Effect of Ordinance.
When a referendum petition is filed with the city clerk, the legislation sought to be reconsidered shall be suspended from taking effect. Such suspension shall terminate when:
(i) There is a final determination of insufficiency of the petition, or
(ii) The petitioners’ committee withdraws the petition, or
(iii) The council repeals the legislation, or
(iv) Thirty days have elapsed after a vote of the city on the legislation.
(f) Action on Petitions.
(g) Results of Election.
Unlike other provisions, this article must be completely self-executing. Detail should not be filled in by the council because these devices guard against possible inadequacies of council.
(a) Neither the initiative nor the referendum should be applicable to the budget, capital program, any ordinance relating to the appropriation of money or the levy of taxes, or, of course, to salaries of city officers or employees, for this would interfere with responsible officials striving to 47 achieve a properly balanced long-range fiscal program. Recall should not apply to recently elected officials, because officials need time to establish themselves in office, and because election results should not be promptly challenged by another election.
(b) Requiring a petitioners’ committee places clear responsibility for the undertaking of initiative, referendum, or recall proceedings.
(c) The number of signatures required for initiative and referendum petitions in the seventh edition was fifteen percent of the total number registered to vote at the last regular city election. The eighth edition permits charter drafters to decide upon a reasonable threshold for their city, chosen from a range equal to or greater than five percent but less than or equal to ten percent of registered voters to vote at the last city election. The percentage used should neither be too easy nor too burdensome. Communities typically require more signatures for recall petitions than for initiative and referendum petitions. In determining the recall percentage, drafters should consider distinguishing between at-large and district offices. Limiting the period for filing a referendum petition to thirty days after passage insures that the effective date of an ordinance will not be delayed unless the referendum effort is of serious proportions. The timing of the recall procedure prevents the threat of recall from pending without limitation. The time period for signature collection should be reasonably related to the signature requirement and the size of the city, within the provided range of 40 to 160 days.
(d) The mandatory language prevents the city clerk from delaying certification of the sufficiency or insufficiency of petitions beyond the twenty days specified.
(e) The fact that filing a referendum petition with the city clerk suspends the effective date of an ordinance will spur the city clerk and the council into prompt action on the question of sufficiency. When an ordinance is subjected to a referendum vote and the council’s action is sustained, termination of the suspension must be delayed until sufficient time has passed for official determination of the election results. This will vary with local practice. The thirty days indicated in § 6.04(e) (iv) is arbitrary. If there is a definite provision for the official reporting of election results, the lifting of the suspension should probably coincide with the reporting.
(f) This section mandates council consideration of the proposed “initiative ordinance” and reconsideration of the “referred ordinance” prior to the circulation of petitions and the ensuing ballot question. The words “adopt a proposed initiative ordinance without any change in substance” permit correction of technical imperfections. If an election is necessary, provisions for submitting a proposed or referred ordinance to the voters, or ordering a recall election, permit considerable latitude as to the election date to encourage holding the vote at a regular election if possible. One of the most important reasons for requiring a petitioners’ committee is to provide a mechanism for withdrawing an initiative, referendum, or recall petition if those originating the proceedings change their minds or feel that action of the council satisfies the need which prompted the petition.
(g) Initiative ordinances approved by the electorate become effective, just as is the case with an ordinance passed by council, in thirty days or at whatever later date is specified.