Duluth’s voters spoke in November, soundly rejecting a proposed shift to ranked-choice voting by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, but Nick Foucault, a Duluth businessman who actively campaigned against the initiative, wasn’t content with a simple victory at the polls.

“After the tremendous success of the rejection of the initiative, I still wasn’t fully satisfied in understanding how and why this came about for Duluth and was really trying to get at the crux of: Where is this coming from?” Foucault said.

He wanted to learn more about FairVote Minnesota’s failed efforts to convince the residents of Duluth to trade in their conventional elections for ranked-choice voting, and he enlisted the help of Minneapolis attorney Brian Rice to dig into the matter.

Rice argued that FairVote’s funding sources should be revealed. James LaFave, an administrative law judge, agreed, and earlier this week, the organization filed revised campaign finance reports with the Duluth city clerk’s office

Call for transparency

“There simply wasn’t the proper disclosure of where this money was arriving from, and the law is very clear that we need to have that disclosure,” Foucault said. “So at that point I said: We’re going to take this to the next level, and I got Brian involved. I really wanted to uncover where this money is coming from, because FairVote isn’t throwing in the towel. They’re going to be moving on and trying to regroup.”

Jeanne Massey, the executive director of FairVote Minnesota, confirmed her organization will continue to promote ranked-choice voting.

“We certainly would have liked to see a victory in Duluth. … That said, it isn’t persuading other communities against it,” she commented.

Despite the defeat in Duluth, Massey said her organization remains ready to help other communities explore ranked-choice voting as an alternative to their current election systems.

“We believe that there are better, fairer, more inclusive and more participatory processes, with ranked-choice voting certainly being one of them. We promote it, and if a community takes interest, then that’s where we would follow and support that. And that would be true of any other community. For example, Brooklyn Park is having a very lively conversation right now,” she said.

Rice criticized FairVote for running a big, expensive campaign to sway voters in Duluth, while neglecting to provide any transparency as to where all the money was coming from.

“They were running what appeared to me to be - when Mr. Foucault pointed this out - a shadow campaign with dark money, and I think it’s time that people shine some light on FairVote Minnesota,” Rice said. “That’s why I volunteered my time on this, because I think the public needs to see what’s going on with this organization.”

Another local opponent of ranked-choice voting, 2nd District Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress, said he appreciated FairVote’s recent disclosures.

“I think the referendum sort of decisively settled this,” he said. “So on the one hand, I do think it’s important for the community to kind of move on. But on the other hand, I think it’s always worthwhile to make sure we have transparent information about the interests that are influencing our politics.”

Well-funded campaign

FairVote and the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign Committee collectively spent more than $181,000 to promote ranked-choice voting last year. That’s 78 percent more than both candidates in Duluth’s mayoral race spent, combined.

And the vast majority of the money spent to promote ranked-choice voting came from outside of Duluth. Local donors contributed just $2,515 in support of pro-RCV efforts - a 1.4 percent sliver of the campaign’s funding pie.

An opposition group formed the Vote No RCV Campaign Committee but was able to muster just $7,016 in support. Opponents were outspent by more than 25 to 1 by supporters of ranked-choice voting.

“Normally, you would say that in a campaign that money does have a big say, but clearly it doesn’t have the only say, and clearly in Duluth it didn’t,” Rice said.

Reporting confusion

Massey said FairVote made no attempt to conceal its role in the campaign.

“We filed all of the reports in a timely way, and we reported all of our expenses. We just said: We’re drawing from our general fund, and we did. But then we were asked to report what our general fund was. So rather than create a fight about it, we just did that. It’s not a big deal,” she said.

Massey said she thought FairVote had been forthright in its reporting and remarked: “In campaign finance law, it’s not entirely clear at all how to report income from corporate entities.”

At the direction of an administrative judge, FairVote subsequently filed paperwork outlining all its funding sources.

“So we reported all of our income,” Massey said, pointing to the nearly $270,000 in funding FairVote disclosed last week. But she said not all that money was spent in Duluth.

“That was the problem, because we raise money generally. Some of it goes to Duluth. Some of it goes to other places. Some of it’s used just for regular operations,” she said.

FairVote went the extra mile to satisfy a request for greater transparency, according to Massey.

“We didn’t raise money specifically for Duluth. So there wasn’t income to report for Duluth. When we were asked to refile to indicate what our organizational income was, we did that. It’s not a problem to disclose, but there is lack of clarity in law, and in fact in law it states that that’s not what is needed. But we were asked for that and we did it, because we don’t have a problem disclosing,” she said.

Voters’ verdict

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who has long opposed ranked-choice voting, praised the citizens of Duluth for voting it down.

“You’ve long had an open, responsive, honest election system in Duluth,” he said. “People up there know what they’re doing.”

Mondale called the election “a pretty decisive verdict,” and noted that local voters were not swayed by a well-financed campaign designed to sell them on ranked-choice voting.

“They put that resolution on the ballot and imported all that money from undisclosed sources, but voters in Duluth turned it down,” he said. “I was very impressed by what I saw.”

Full disclosure

Foucault predicts Duluth hasn’t seen the last of FairVote.

“I would be very surprised if we don’t see them turn up in Duluth again soon. I suspect they’ll be back, and when they come back it’s going to be their burden to tell us where they’re being funded and who they’re being funded by if they put this proposal before the people of Duluth again,” he said.

Massey said FairVote may return to Duluth in the future but will take its lead from local grassroots supporters of ranked-choice voting.

“When the community and the citizens believe the timing may be suitable again, we would certainly entertain lending that organizational support again,” she said.

“My own personal perspective is that could happen. There’s been quite a bit of foundation built. There’s support in the office of the mayor and with some council members. So who knows when the timing might be right for that conversation to re-emerge and for the community to have a different kind of dialog about it?” Massey said.

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