In what turned out to be one of the most hotly debated issues on this year’s ballot, Duluthians sent a strong message Tuesday in favor of their current voting system.

Voters resoundingly rejected a citywide referendum that called for a shift to a ranked-choice voting system.

The city of Duluth’s tally showed 15,564 “no” votes to 5,271 “yes” votes. 

The ballot initiative, which called for a change in the way Duluth has voted for more than a century, sharply divided local leaders and led to aggressive campaigning by supporters and detractors alike.

Those on both sides of the issue said the decisive vote was undoubtedly influenced by the public opposition lodged by numerous public officials, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, outgoing Mayor Don Ness and a majority of the current city councilors.

Second District Councilor Joel Sipress, who was among the most vocal opponents of the proposal, praised Duluth voters for their overwhelming rejection of the referendum.

“I think it shows that the people of Duluth have a lot of common sense and understand that we’ve got a high level of civic engagement in the community,” he said. “We have an election system that works well for us, and I’m just really gratified that people in Duluth used their own judgement to determine what’s best for our election system.”

Dr. Robert Wahman, chairman of the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, which pushed for the change, was obviously disappointed with the results but said he accepted the voters’ decision.

“It was gratifying to see such great citizen interaction, which is what this campaign was intended to encourage,” he said. “Perhaps as it becomes more common around the country, Duluthians will take another look at ranked-choice voting in the future. But today the people have spoken, and that’s what democracy is all about.”

Under the current voting system, a candidate receiving a simple majority of votes - or the highest overall vote-getters in a multiseat race - are declared victorious.

In ranked-choice voting, voters name their top three candidate picks in order of preference. Election results can go through several “rounds,” with the candidates receiving the lowest number of votes being eliminated and their ballots being redistributed to their second- and third-choices before a winner emerges.

Supporters contended that a ranked-choice system promotes civility in elections, empowers voters and is cost-effective because it eliminates high-cost, low-turnout primary elections.

Opponents argued that the system is unnecessary, adding complication and confusion to the voting process. Current and former political leaders from both ends of the spectrum spoke out about the proposed system; notably, Mondale penned a letter to the News Tribune on Sunday, calling the process “confusing and complex.”

However, it did have a few notable supporters, including state Sen. Roger Reinert and Rep. Erik Simonson.

If approved, Duluth would have joined Minneapolis and St. Paul in using ranked-choice voting to elect city leaders. Instead, the city appears to be the first in the state to reject a shift to the system.

Wahman acknowledged that opposition from local leaders played a significant role in the downturn of the campaign.

However, he hinted that this will not be the last Duluthians hear of ranked-choice voting.

“I think that as we see more communities across the country adopt it, as it comes along, it’ll be reconsidered here,” he said. “It’s still a good option.”

Sipress, on the other hand, said the lopsided results should send a strong message to those who want to implement the system.

“I’m hopeful that the margin in this ballot question will put the RCV issue to rest here in Duluth,” he said.