Andrew Deziel in the Lonsdale Area News-Review

At a time when voters are increasingly frustrated by partisan polarization, some activists are pushing for electoral reform they argue could help to solve the problem — but not everyone is on board.

FairVote Minnesota, a nonprofit advocacy group that has advocated for electoral reform for a quarter century, is again asking Minnesota’s legislature to consider a comprehensive ranked-choice voting bill.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, is among a long list of DFL legislators backing the bill. Lippert’s support for ranked-choice voting carries on the tradition of his predecessor, fellow DFLer David Bly, who co-sponsored ranked-choice voting legislation himself.

To Bly, ranked-choice voting would not only increase the chances of voters getting leaders they like or at least can live with, but would widen public debate in a healthy manner. Bly said that oftentimes, third-party candidates focus on important issues and that their perspective could be heard more clearly if they aren’t dismissed as spoilers.

Republicans are much more hesitant to jump on board. Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, pointed to Minneapolis, the first city in Minnesota to adopt ranked-choice voting, as evidence that the promises of the system might work better on paper than in reality.

If the proposal passes, Minnesotans would begin using ranked-choice voting for all state and federal elections. In addition, municipalities wishing to use ranked-choice voting for local elections would be given the resources needed to do so.

Five Minnesota cities now use ranked-choice voting to decide the election, after Minnetonka and Bloomington passed ballot initiatives to do so last year.

Logistical barriers essentially prevent local municipalities including Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna as well as Rice and Steele counties from utilizing ranked-choice voting. That’s because they elect local officials in even years, alongside other races, on a ballot not equipped for ranked-choice voting. Instead, these local government entities effectively utilize primaries to eliminate some candidates in order to avoid vote splitting. These primaries are often low-turnout affairs, attracting less than 20% of the electorate.

When such a small group of voters plays a crucial role in whittling the field, some candidates who might perform well in November could get left off the ballot if they appeal largely to voter demographics less likely to turn out in the primary.

FairVote Minnesota Executive Director Jeanne Massey said there’s another issue with cities like Faribault, which asks voters to simultaneously choose multiple candidates for several at-large council seats.

If a voter who strongly prefers one or two candidates, they could choose to vote only for those candidates. However, that represents a clear “wasted opportunity” to choose a third candidate, potentially opening the door to the election of a candidate they don’t particularly care for. On the flip side, the voter could choose a candidate they have lukewarm feelings toward to fill out their ballot. That vote could play a role in eliminating one of the candidates they feel more strongly in support of.

“Putting down three equal choices can mean you’re actually harming the choices of your favorite candidate,” she said.

This “spoiler” effect can be seen in state and federal races as well. Former Congressman Tim Penny, who has been a strong supporter of ranked-choice voting, noted that multiple such races in recent years have produced winners with 45% of the vote or even less.

By offering ranked-choice voting as an option, Penny said that the state could eliminate concerns about the “spoiler” effect and enable voters to support a third party candidate they like without risking the election of a major party candidate they particularly dislike.

Of course, ranked-choice voting could eliminate any concerns regarding the “spoiler effect,” and that isn’t the only reason advocates of ranked-choice voting give for their support. Penny said he expects ranked-choice voting to alter the way candidates campaign and the way they govern in a positive manner.

“If you want to be somebody’s second choice it’s less likely that you will engage in negative campaigning,” Penny said. “It can produce a campaign that is less bitter, less nasty, less negative than they might otherwise have been.”

In addition, the structure of ranked-choice voting could produce political “mandates” that are both stronger and weaker in potentially beneficial ways. While winners would be required to have secured over 50%, they would be conscious that not all of those voters initially preferred them.

“If they received a mere plurality of votes, they now know that their victory owes something to voters who did not select them as their first choice,” Penny said. “They now are accountable to more than just their party’s base.”

On the statewide level, Maine became the first state to implement a ranked-choice voting system through a 2016 ballot initiative. Though Maine’s constitution prevented initiative from being applied to some state-level races, it applies to federal and primary elections.

Despite legal challenges and staunch opposition from then-Gov. Paul LePage, ranked-choice voting has remained. Kyle Bailey, a staunch ranked-choice voting supporter who now serves in Maine’s legislature, said the system has delivered greater voter participation.

“In 2018 and 2020 our primaries and general elections have seen major increases in turnout,” he said. “Voters like having more choices… they can vote their hopes and not their fears.”

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