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Local View: Ranked-choice voting essential to secure democracy for all

If the turnout at Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s May 6 talk at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation’s annual celebration is any indication, Duluth is a city that cares deeply about the future and the children who’ll inherit it.

Putnam, a renowned social scientist and the author of the new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” spoke to a packed room at the DECC about the widening inequality in the U.S. and what it portends for tomorrow. Children of affluence have massive — and growing — advantages over poor children today, Putnam said, while upward mobility is becoming a thing of the past. It’s getting harder to believe in the concept of a meritocracy, of the chance to succeed with talent, pluck and hard work.

It was a sobering conversation. And for us it underlined all the more the importance of bipartisan democracy reform: The only way we stand a chance of closing the increasing opportunity gap between rich and poor kids in America is to get serious about structural political change.

That means fixing the way we elect our leaders so that everyone has a say in finding solutions. We’ve long advocated for ranked-choice voting; today, we’re more certain than ever that it’s essential to secure democracy for all. Fundamental reforms like ranked-choice voting could help ensure much broader political participation and representation — and, consequently, better governance.

Our state and national plurality voting system is practically tailor-made to perpetuate, reinforce and exacerbate the power disparities and economic polarization Putnam described. The system virtually guarantees our leaders will be selected by and beholden to a narrow subset of the citizenry.

Ranked-choice voting, by contrast, requires candidates to reach beyond their base and win with the support of a broad majority of voters. Ranked-choice voting makes politics and policymaking more inclusive, substantive and civil.

By eliminating the “spoiler” dynamic, ranked-choice voting also encourages a much broader and more diverse array of candidates to run and to help shape the political conversation. It ensures those candidates have a real shot at winning, ultimately fostering more representative government. That’s crucial to enacting reforms — in education, the criminal justice system, civic life and beyond — we need to level the playing field in politics, enabling us to level the playing field for our kids, as Putman called on us to do.

We need to start locally. While our local nonpartisan races are not as divided and polarizing as races at the state and national level, voter participation and choice are trending downward. Ranked-choice voting — by eliminating high-cost, low-turnout local primaries and by bringing together the most candidates with the most voters in a single high-turnout election in November — gives voters more choice and more power in the political process.

Recognizing ranked-choice voting’s transformative potential, a broad coalition of citizen reformers, elected officials, and civic and business leaders, calling ourselves the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, is collecting petition signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot this November that would, if passed, authorize the use of ranked-choice voting for future municipal elections.

We’re optimistic. We’re more than halfway there. We hope you’ll join us by signing.

Reversing the troubling trends Putnam wrote about in his newest book is a daunting challenge, but we’re hopeful we can do it. It requires connecting lots of dots and being willing to embrace systemic solutions — including far-reaching reforms like ranked-choice voting — that can pave the way for other advances. We’re proud to live in a city that’s willing to think big and consider meaningful change. We’ll be keeping the kids in mind as we vote for ranked-choice voting, one key, first step in creating a brighter, more-equitable future.

Bob and Sharon Wahman are members of the Duluth Better Ballot Committee, which is pushing to use ranked-choice voting in Duluth.

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