Duluth Mayor Don Ness and five city councilors joined forces with others opposed to ranked-choice voting Sunday afternoon on the steps of City Hall.
"I do oppose this ballot initiative on ranked-choice voting. In my mind, it's a solution looking for a problem," said Ness, referring to a referendum that will put the issue to a city-wide vote in November.
"Quite frankly, in the city of Duluth with our nonpartisan elections, we don't have a problem. We have good voter participation," he said.
A group called Keep Voting Simple - Vote No RCV officially coalesced this past week to launch a campaign against ranked-choice voting.
The Rev. Cathy Schuylar, who co-chairs the group, said: "I oppose ranked-choice voting because I believe it undermines good and fair voting practices in a number of ways. I believe it presents voters with a confusing ballot of many names, and confusion will discourage people from voting, instead of encouraging them to vote."
Katie Humphrey, manager of the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, which supports a shift to ranked-choice voting, refuted the criticism and said: "They're using scare tactics: that it will be too confusing, and that it's a solution for a problem we don't have. And both of those things are not true."
Making a case for ranked-choice voting, Humphrey, pointed to the recent primary in Duluth, where a mere 17 percent of voters decided what candidates would appear on the ballot in November.
"I think the way that we're electing leaders right now - with high-cost, low-turnout primaries - is not fair or representative. I think it makes better sense to have one election where all the voters vote on all the candidates in November, when the voter turnout is the highest," she said.
But 2nd District Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress attributed poor turnout in the most recent city primary to a relatively uncompetitive mayoral race.
"When we have competitive mayoral races, we have excellent turnout in Duluth primaries," he said. "The 2003 and 2007 mayoral primaries, which were our last two hotly contested primaries, those primaries had higher election turnout than the general election in Minneapolis in 2013 that ranked-choice voting advocates like to crow about."
Ness contends that by narrowing the field, primaries sharpen and focus the debate. He recalled running for his first term as mayor against a field of 11 other candidates and the difficulty of making his voice heard amid the crowd.
"The debates prior to the primary were very confusing and frustrating as a candidate," he said.
"It wasn't until after the primary that we could have that one-on-one exchange of ideas, and the average person following the race could compare and contrast those candidates," Ness said.
But Humphrey said the current process unduly deprives voters of options, and allows a relatively small group of citizens to set the ballot.
"People want more than two choices," she said. "They don't want to feel like they're being forced to pick the lesser of two evils. With ranked-choice voting, it allows people to vote their conscience, and you have all the candidates to choose from."
Humphrey pointed to Minneapolis and St. Paul as examples of Minnesota cities that have successfully moved to ranked-choice voting and questioned local politicians' efforts to turn voters against the idea.
"I think we should let people make up their minds for themselves, without being told that they're too stupid to rank their choices: one, two and three. I don't see Duluth voters being any less smart than voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and ranked-choice voting has worked really well there," she said.
When it comes to trying to influence the vote, 1st District City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud said opponents have nothing on FairVote Minnesota's efforts to sway public opinion. She noted that through Aug. 31, the state organization had spent more than $73,000 to promote ranked-choice voting in Duluth.
In comparison, the fledgling local opposition campaign, Keep Voting Simple - Vote No RCV, has so far raised a little more than $1,000.
Eric Erdmann, a UMD math professor, suggested that ranked-choice voting might lead to less participation, not more.
"When comparing turnout for city elections, Minneapolis actually saw a drop in voters from 70,000 to 45,000 the first time RCV was used," he said.
Erdmann expressed other concerns, as well, noting that in 2013, "Minneapolis saw a disproportionate amount of spoiled ballots in its lower-income wards and had exhausted almost 20 percent of ballots before the final round of counting. This is like one in five people being able to vote in the primary and not allowed to vote in the general election, despite filling out a valid ballot."
Other Duluth City Councilors who have joined Sipress and Julsrud in public opposition to ranked-choice voting include Zack Filipovich, Sharla Gardner, Jennifer Julsrud and Barb Russ.
"I'm really shocked at the level of pushback we're getting, especially from our elected officials, because what we've found by going door to door and talking to voters is that there's a really high level of support for ranked-choice voting. People want to make this change," Humphrey said.
Dr. Robert Wahman, chairman of the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, said he's not altogether surprised at all the local politicians lining up against the new system.
"Most politicians seem to think that the system that got them elected is the best system," he observed.
"Our city leans a little to the left, and the current system serves the powers that be, very well," Wahman said. "Ranked-choice voting draws people to the middle, and people on the extremes tend not to do as well. That's why some politicians and parties don't like it. It gives voters more power."
Erdmann said ranked-choice voting has hardly been a resounding success where it has been tried.
"From what I can see, there are 18 communities that have tried RCV, and six have already abandoned it, after spending a lot of time and money. Our city has much more important things to take care of, rather than wasting our resources on this experiment," he said.