By Sue Sanger
The city of St. Louis Park recently voted to abolish primary elections for mayor and city council races, effective by the 2019 election. This was done due to historically low voter turnout, compared with the costs of conducting the election. But further election reform is needed, as illustrated by the August primary election among four candidates in Ward One, to replace me on the city council.
In that election, the top vote getter received 47 percent of all votes cast. Without a primary, these four candidates would be on the ballot in the November general election, and similar results would likely prevail. The winner would have been chosen without the approval of a majority of the voters.
There is a better, smarter way to manage our elections and ensure that the will of the majority is reflected in the results. Ranked-choice voting is used by hundreds of communities nationwide, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. It works by allowing voters to rank their choices among the listed candidates. When the votes are tabulated, if one candidate receives at least 50 percent of the votes, then he or she is declared the winner, just as today. But if no candidate reaches that threshold, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from further consideration, and ballots for that candidate are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on the second choices on those ballots. This process can be repeated until one candidate achieves a majority of the votes.
Using ranked-choice voting in the November election, when voter turnout is generally much higher than in primary elections, ensures that the winner in multi-candidate contests has broad popular support. This has many benefits. One, more voters help to elect our local leaders, who thus must feel accountable to a broader range of voters. Two, voters may “vote their conscience” to cast a vote for a candidate who is unlikely to win but also cast a second-choice vote for their “next best” candidate. Three, elections become more civil and constructive, as any candidate who denigrates other candidates risks alienating voters from ranking that candidate as a second choice on the ballot.
Studies have shown that voters who have used ranked-choice voting find it simple to use and do not want to return to traditional voting methods. Studies also confirm that voter turnout increases when ranked-choice voting is used, and women and minority candidates fare better. In short, ranked-choice voting helps to improve democracy – which is why the League of Women Voters and many other nonpartisan organizations promote its adoption.
The St. Louis Park City Council will discuss the possible adoption of ranked-choice voting for municipal elections at a meeting tentatively scheduled Monday, Sept. 18. I hope that residents will contact the mayor and council members before that date to express their support and attend the meeting to learn more and demonstrate community interest in improved election procedures.
Sue Sanger represents Ward 1 on the St. Louis Park City Council. She is not running for re-election.