As she looked out into the crowd during a short speech at a DFL Senate district convention in Duluth last week, Councilwoman Emily Larson rattled off a list of lawmakers who support bringing ranked choice voting to the port city.
Partway through the list, Larson realized she didnt know where Rep. Erik Simonson, also of Duluth, stood on the issue, so she paused her speech to ask him. From the crowd, Simonson responded with a thumbs-up.
But its not Simonsons vote that Larson and other advocates of ranked choice voting (RCV) need.
Although Gov. Mark Dayton, the majority of DFLers on the Senate subcommittee that deals with elections, and many House lawmakers want local jurisdictions to have the option to implement ranked choice voting, activists still lack the support of one key leader: Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport.
Sieben, who heads the Senate Subcommittee on Elections, has pushed against the tide by declining to give the bill a hearing. Her concerns about ranked choice voting arent out of place in the DFL Party, but her position is unique.
Without Siebens green light, the measure which likely has the votes to pass out of her committee if it were heard could be effectively dead once the second legislative policy deadline of the session passes on Friday.
Activists and pro-RCV lawmakers point out that the bill would simply allow non-charter cities the vast majority of municipalities in Minnesota to experiment with ranked choice voting if they want, and stress that it doesnt contain any statewide elections mandates. Ranked choice elections allow citizens to prioritize their top candidates on the ballot, with support reallocated as candidates who earn the fewest votes are dropped out of the running.
But Sieben who said characterizations that shes blocking the bill are pretty fair doesnt approve of the legislation. Sieben stuck to the substance of the bill when outlining her concerns, but backers suspect political anxiety and the controversy within the DFL over the measure is the real culprit behind the demise of ranked choice voting this session.
I dont support it, and Im the chair of the committee, Sieben said in an interview on Tuesday, noting that the bill doesnt have bipartisan backing in the Senate. I get to decide what bills are heard in this case.
Proponents push advantages of RCV
Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, the organizing force behind ranked choice voting here, has a well-rehearsed pitch on the merits of RCV.
Its main tenets: Ranked choice voting is more cost-effective because it eliminates primary elections; the measure provides statewide guidance on how to set up a ranked choice system; and the legislation provides standards for election equipment.
Without this bill, they cant explore that, she said. Why not give communities that ability to decide for themselves?
Local and state officials and activists also quickly rap out the potential benefits of ranked choice voting itself: It eliminates the spoiler third-party candidate phenomenon that draws support away from major party hopefuls, it increases voter turnout because theres only one election, it cuts out negative campaigning and its a more nuanced approach to voting.
So much of policymaking and politics is very, very gray, but youre forced to make a black and white [choice], said Larson, the Duluth councilwoman who is working to bring the system there. Ranked choice acknowledges and kind of embraces the complexities of a vote.
But Sieben said shes waiting to see more local government support for ranked choice voting, because the local officials shes spoken with have criticized its cost and the intersection of using a ranked choice ballot with a regular ballot.
Elected officials from Falcon Heights, Duluth and Rochester have sent letters to Sieben supporting the measure.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have already used ranked choice voting in municipal elections, and the 2013 mayoral race in Minneapolis raised eyebrows because it took days to certify Betsy Hodges as the winner.
I also just think, Sieben said, that when you look at some of the election results from some of the previous elections that have used ranked choice, Im not convinced that some of the things that they have said would be a real plus are turning out to be the case.
Devin Rice, a Minneapolis Charter Commission member and outspoken opponent of ranked choice voting, said that the voting system disenfranchises minority and low-income voters because ranked choice ballots can be confusing. Echoing Siebens concerns, Rice also said that Minneapolis hasnt seen voter turnout boosts or cost savings because of the system.
Duluth is the latest and most active front in the effort to spread ranked choice voting across Minnesota cities.
But since its a charter city, Duluth doesnt explicitly need the stalled legislation to set up a ranked choice voting system. Instead, Larson said, supporters there want the statewide standards that are included in the bill.
Theres an interesting kind of convergence in Duluth happening with this issue, she said. I like the idea of tying it to this bill.
Ryan Kennedy, campaign manager for the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, said that the efforts toward RCV in Duluth are similar to the pushes that happened in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He said the group hopes to have a final charter amendment passed through the council by the end of the summer for voters to decide on in November 2014.
Larson, a key ally on the council, said its an exciting time for activists who believe in the voting system.
It really resonates with voters, and it really, really resonates with people.
Proposal remains divisive
House Elections Committee Chair Steve Simon and others attributed some of the fear around ranked choice voting to politics. Supporters had harbored hope that a Senate hearing would come this week, and Massey said shes confused by Siebens inaction.
The FairVote team counted on the support of DFL Sens. Ann Rest (New Hope), Richard Cohen (St. Paul), Kent Eken (Twin Valley), Jeff Hayden (Minneapolis) and John Hoffman (Champlin) to reach the five votes necessary to pass the ranked choice voting measure out of the subcommittee.
Eken, Hayden and Rest told Politics in Minnesota that they would support the measure if it came up. Cohen said he would be inclined to support the bill, but said he needed more details. Hoffman, according to his office, remains undecided on the measure.
She cant justify the reasons, Massey said of Sieben. None of it adds up. Were just perplexed.
Simons committee in the House successfully passed the RCV option bill in mid-March, and its awaiting a floor vote.
Id rather not get into that, Simon said when asked how he had lobbied Sieben about the measure. I think I need to be discreet on that point.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is an ardent supporter of RCV. Kahn, who still blames Ralph Nader for Al Gores loss in the 2000 presidential election, said she recently spoke with Sieben and asked her to support the bill without much luck.
The only thing I didnt try was telling Katie Sieben I had given her first baby present, Kahn said with a laugh.
Also complicating efforts to change election law is Daytons requirement that it pass with bipartisan support to get his signature. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said she doesnt support the bill and would be surprised if other Senate Republicans thought differently.
But House Republicans have offered the bill a friendlier reception. Rep. Tim Sanders, a Blaine Republican who leads on elections issues in the House, noted a bipartisan love and hate on the bill.
That divisiveness within both parties points to an underlying political calculus, according to activists.
We know for sure from her that this is a political move somewhere, Massey said. We dont know exactly where thats coming from, but theres something going on there.
My understanding is theres just some hesitancy probably more based on politics than policy, Simon added. Thats all I really know just some people who are skittish about the idea.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin acknowledged the disagreement in his party over RCV, but said it wasnt a huge priority in the state DFL.
It is in our platform, and there are certainly a lot of rank-and-file DFLers who support ranked choice voting, Martin said. But there are a number of our leaders in the party who still have a lot of questions about ranked choice voting and its impacts for the party in the long term.