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Duluth City Council to consider ranked-choice voting

City Council President Linda Krug has proposed a resolution that could put Duluth on track to become the third city in Minnesota to adopt a ranked-choice voting system, following in the footsteps of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But Krug can expect more than a little pushback if Thursday’s council agenda session is any indication of what’s to come tonight when her resolution is slated for consideration.

Several councilors expressed concerns about the ambitious timeline Krug has laid out.

If her resolution passes, it would direct the city’s Charter Commission to decide by July 9 whether to recommend that Duluth switch to ranked-choice. That recommendation then would go to the Duluth City Council. Krug said she hopes the council will in turn consider putting the matter to a referendum. She’s shooting for a first reading on July 14, with a second reading and a vote expected on July 21.

Krug explained that the council must not dally if it hopes to meet state deadlines required to place a referendum on the November ballot. If a simple majority of referendum voters supported a switch to ranked-choice voting, the new system then could be implemented.

However, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress observed that there are pros and cons to any voting system, and he called for careful consideration before possibly switching to ranked-choice elections.

“I’m very leery of putting the Charter Commission on such a tight timeframe,” he said.

“These questions are far more complex than they may appear to be on the surface,” Sipress cautioned

With a ranked-choice system, voters are asked to pick their first-, second- and third-choice candidates to serve in public office. The first-choice votes are then tallied first, with the lowest-placing candidates eliminated one by one.

When candidates are knocked out of the race, their supporters’ second- and potentially even third-choice votes come into play as they are allocated to remaining candidates. A winner is declared as soon as any candidate amasses more than 50 percent of the vote.

Krug said voters in the Twin Cities have given ranked-choice voting high marks and called recent elections there “great success stories.”

She said ranked-choice voting discourages negative campaign tactics and saves money by eliminating the need for primary elections.

At Large Councilor Emily Larson noted that Duluth’s voting machines already are compatible to handle ranked-choice voting, so converting to the new system would involve negligible expense.

At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich asked how much the city could expect to spend educating voters on ranked-choice voting if it is adopted.

Dakotah Johnson of FairVote Minnesota, an organization that promotes ranked-choice voting, said an extensive and successful voter education campaign in Minneapolis cost less than $1 per voter to execute.

But 1st District Councilor Jennifer Julsrud remained unconvinced the expense could be justified and suggested Duluth would be wise to take its time and evaluate the system’s performance.

“Why not let wealthier cities vet this, not just for one year but for multiple years?” she asked.

Julsrud urged the council to proceed cautiously, and said: “I feel we are pushing this too fast.”

Krug disagreed with the suggestion that the process was being rushed.

“We’ve been talking about this since I got on the council more than two years ago,” she said, recalling a 2012 task force report that recommended the idea of switching to a ranked-choice system be put to a referendum vote as is now being proposed.