Set ranked-choice voting ballot, then educate residents on itA local task force that looked into the issue has urged Duluth City Councilors to ask residents on the 2013 ballot whether they want to use ranked-choice voting in city elections.
By: Virgil Swing, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
A local task force that looked into the issue has urged Duluth City Councilors to ask residents on the 2013 ballot whether they want to use ranked-choice voting in city elections.
Councilors should agree to that request, though lots of education will be needed before residents can make an intelligent choice in the matter. I expect that a man/woman-in-the-street question about it today would draw a “Huh?’’ response from most.
I’ve done a fair amount of research on this voting system, but I’m not sure it is a good reform. However, once Duluthians are educated on the pros and cons, they can make a good decision on it. Since this would be a major reform in a basic role of city government, a ballot referendum makes sense.
Ranked-choice voting (I prefer the alternative term “instant-runoff voting,” which is more descriptive) asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority, the least preferred candidate drops out and his or her votes are distributed among the others as voters had indicated. This continues until one candidate has a majority.
It may sound complicated, but voters could figure it out when they vote. My concerns about the change are more about the logistics.
Ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for a primary election in these races, and its backers cite the cost savings of no primaries as a benefit. Perhaps, but as critics have said, there would still be primary elections in other contests.
Critics also say that new voting machines would be required, which is true —though local officials say new machines are already on the horizon to replace aging ones.
I’ve written columns on this topic earlier and noted that lots of quality political figures endorse the reform. And the only group in Minnesota that I know opposes the change has yet to provide a persuasive case against it.
Still, I won’t endorse it until I learn more, which I’ll do before the issue appears on the ballot. Backers say the reform wouldn’t take effect until the 2015 city elections, so there’s plenty of time to educate voters on it. And city councilors seem to be in no hurry to tackle the issue.
Luckily, Duluth would not be taking a leap into the unknown on the reform, since Minneapolis and St. Paul (and cities in other states) already use ranked-choice voting.
Before any Duluth vote on the change happens, councilors or some unbiased group should check with officials in the Twin Cities and report back on the benefits and drawbacks they’ve seen.
One theoretical advantage of ranked-choice voting is that it will tone down the bitter rhetoric so common in many elections. The idea is that candidates will be more civil and stick more to issues because they don’t want to alienate voters and lose those valuable second- and third-place nods from citizens who didn’t make them their first choice.
That will be nice if it happens. As a longtime cynic, I’ll believe that when I see it — but perhaps the Twin Cities have seen some evidence of it.
The Duluth task force that urged councilors to put the issue on the ballot said the city might have to spend $90,000 to educate residents about the change for the first two elections. I’d guess that money can be saved as civic groups that favor the change and the news media could do the educating without city money. This isn’t brain surgery, after all.
Actually, the issue could go on this year’s ballot and be used starting in 2013 if voters approved. The reform isn’t so complicated that voters couldn’t be educated in the next few months. But efforts of legislative Republicans to junk up the state constitution with ballot amendments this fall could cause the voting reform to be lost in the crowd in 2012.
City races in Duluth have been mostly civil — and even uncontested in three cases in 2011 — but Duluth residents deserve a chance next year to weigh in on whether they think ranked-choice voting would be an improvement.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at email@example.com.