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Duluth explores new voting system

file / News Tribune

For the past few months, a study group has been considering whether Duluth should adopt a new system that would allow residents to cast votes for multiple candidates vying for the same seat. But would-be supporters aren't rushing ahead with the idea.

Charter commission member and former Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who led the study group, remains a big fan of the system called "approval voting," yet he said the group won't propose any change in the city's election protocol for 2019.

In November, Fargo, N.D., became the first city in the nation to adopt approval voting, when 64 percent of voters there passed a local referendum in favor of giving the new system a try.

The new system allows citizens to cast votes in favor of any number of candidates they consider qualified to serve in an elected capacity. Unlike ranked-choice voting, all votes of support carry the same weight under the approval system.

"It's a system that I have long championed in concept, especially in comparison to ranked-choice voting," said Ness, describing approval voting as less confusing.

"I think it addresses some of the drawbacks of plurality voting, where the spoiler effect has a huge impact on elections, and oftentimes elections are determined not by the quality of the candidates but by which candidates split votes with others who are running," he said.

Duluth's charter commission could have asked voters to weigh in on approval voting this November, but Ness said his study group decided more time was needed to educate people on the system before putting it to a referendum.

The yearlong pause also should provide Duluth residents with an opportunity to see how approval voting works in Fargo.

But Emily Larson, Duluth's present mayor, said she favors maintaining the status quo system of one voter, one vote.

She noted that Duluth residents decisively rejected a proposal to adopt ranked-choice voting in November of 2015 by nearly a three-to-one margin.

"The vast majority of voters in that election said they did not want to change the voting system ... and I do not see a compelling reason to bring that question back at this point," Larson said.

Ness contends that approval voting should not be confused with ranked-choice voting, however.

"I'm strongly opposed to ranked-choice voting, because of its complexity, especially on the counting side, as well as on the voting side. And approval voting is so much simpler and straightforward. But because we've had this discussion about ranked-choice voting and the complexity there and people's difficulties in truly understanding how those votes are counted, it feels as though they're taking many of those concerns about ranked-choice voting and applying them to approval voting," he said.

Ness suggested that waiting an additional year to bring an approval voting proposal forward should provide a greater opportunity to people to grasp the differences between that system and ranked-choice voting.

Larson noted that several Minnesota cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, already have switched to ranked-choice voting and suggested that if Duluth were to adopt approval voting, it would create an even more confusing political landscape.

"I think the idea of offering a third method of voting within the same state feels overly complicated," she said.

Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs supported the idea of ranked-choice voting and said he also sees value in approval voting.

"We are currently in a time where political extremism is becoming the norm, and our two-party system kind of allows for that to happen. But I think ranked-choice voting allows for the most broad-based support of candidates, and think that approval voting offers very similar benefits," he said.

Hobbs suspects approval voting may be an easier sell than ranked-choice voting.

"I think approval voting is a concept which is probably less prone to fear mongering. You're just voting for folks you think can do the job and essentially leaving blanks for the folks that you think are unqualified or who are incapable of handling the challenges of today," he said.

Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress, an outspoken critic of ranked-choice voting, said he will reserve judgment on approval voting until he studies the system in greater depth.

"I think it's always good to consider the merits of different voting systems. It takes a lot of community discussion. People need to go into it with an open mind, looking at the real pluses and minuses, because there is no perfect voting system," he said.

Sipress said he is encouraged that the charter commission is taking time to further evaluate approval voting.

"It's not particularly helpful when you've got people who oversell the merits and underemphasize the down-side of a voting system. So, it sounds like the study group is really taking a good constructive approach," he said.

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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