A battle is brewing on the Fargo City Commission on exactly what types of election reform to consider placing before voters.
Rejecting a recommendation by the city’s Elections and Governance Task Force that the city implement a novel system called “approval voting,” Commissioner Tony Grindberg said at Monday’s City Commission meeting that he intends to propose at the next meeting that voters be asked to consider instead implementing a two-stage primary/general election system for electing the mayor and commission.
But City Commissioner John Strand disagreed with Grindberg, saying that commissioners should vote on whether to submit to voters the task force’s recommendation on approval voting. He said he would make a separate proposal at the next commission meeting if necessary.
Both Grindberg and Strand agreed that the commission should vote on placing the task force’s other recommendation before voters — to increase the size of the commission from five to seven members.
“We need to address each of the recommendations brought by the citizens’ task force,” Strand said after the meeting on Monday, Oct. 9. “I believe we owe them an answer on each of their recommendations.”
The centerpiece of the debate is the proposal on approval voting, which proponents say will address vote-splitting, but opponents fear is an untested solution:
The Elections and Governance Task Force in January recommended that the city adopt approval voting as a way to address the problem of vote splitting and the fact that winning candidates in recent commission elections have received low vote percentages.
Approval voting is a system that would allow voters to vote for as many candidates on a ballot as they like. But approval voting is a new idea that remains untested. No other city in the U.S. uses it. Some professional organizations, such as the Mathematics Association of America, do use it. The staff senate at North Dakota State University uses it.
“In my judgement, approval voting is too risky,” Grindberg said. “No one else is doing it.”
The City Commission formed the Elections and Governance Task Force in August 2016 to consider and make recommendations for election reform. It considered a variety of issues, but could only agree on two recommendations — approval voting and increasing the size of the commission.
If election reform is placed on the ballot, it would go before voters in June. Any changes approved would first be implemented in June 2020.
Supporters of approval voting on the task force, such as Jed Limke, who last week threatened to mount a citizens’ initiative to get approval voting on the ballot, say that approval voting is the best way to address vote splitting and to increase the chance that winning candidates have support of a majority of the electorate.
Vote splitting is a phenomenon that occurs when voters are forced to choose between ideologically similar candidates because they are limited in how many votes they can cast. For example, in Moorhead’s mayoral election in 2013, Del Rae Williams defeated two more conservative candidates who split the conservative vote.
It also isn’t clear that alternatives to approval voting would address the issue, but opponents are nonetheless resistant – in part, it appears, because some supporters “aren’t from around here”:
Recent Fargo City Commission elections have had a large number of candidates on the ballot, but even winning candidates have earned relatively small voter percentages. In the June 2016 election, the two candidates elected, Grindberg and Strand, received just 16.1 percent and 14.9 percent of the vote respectively among 11 candidates on the ballot. Under the present system, voters can vote for only the number of open seats on the commission.
Runoff elections are widely used, but wouldn’t address the issue of vote splitting and would not assure winners would earn a majority of the vote.
Another City Commission member, Tony Gehrig, expressed fear that approval voting was being pushed by special interests from elsewhere, particularly the left-wing college town of Berkeley, Calif.
“There’s a small special interest group out there that’s trying to change the way we’re doing things,” he said. “I’ve received six phone calls about this issue. One of those calls was from Berkeley. I told that person I didn’t appreciate him trying to meddle in our elections. I’ve had people from Twitter and Facebook, all from Berkeley, trying to tell me how we should run our elections.”
This is a fascinating story that serves as a useful reminder that proposals to change elections remain proposals until they have support from policymakers – who are often motivated by concerns that have nothing to do with election policy. It’ll be interesting to see how this debate shakes out, and what (if any) changes come to Fargo’s elections as a result. Stay tuned…