Mike Hanks in the Sun Current

As Bloomington prepares for its first city council election featuring ranked-choice voting, one of the city’s three state House representatives is continuing his push toward expanding the voting system throughout the state.

The effort to open up ranked-choice voting to local jurisdictions – non-charter cities, school districts and county seats – by Minnesota House District 49B Rep. Steve Elkins (DFL) will not advance during the current legislative session. But the bill in support of ranked-choice voting, which would also implement the system for federal and state elections, is part of the ongoing campaign Elkins has been spearheading.

The bill has support in the state House, and nearly 40 co-authors from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, but it will run into staunch opposition in the Minnesota Senate. The Republican Party has a narrow majority, and the chairwoman of the senate’s State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, is opposed to ranked-choice voting. As chair, she has discretion over which bills are heard in committee, and she won’t agree to hear the bill, according to Elkins.

The House held an informational hearing March 17, however, a common practice for bills that won’t advance during the current session, such as gun safety bills and other election reform proposals, Elkins noted. “We need to give voice to those points of view,” he said.

Familiar debate

Also referred to as instant runoff, or preferential voting, ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of the votes in the initial tabulation, meaning more than 50%, the candidate wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice would have their second-choice vote, if expressed, added to the tally of remaining candidates. This process repeats until one candidate has a majority of the votes.

The system, now used for city council elections in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park, was approved by a Bloomington charter amendment in November. Proponents and opponents outlined arguments for and against the system that would eliminate primary elections for Bloomington’s odd-year, nonpartisan city council races. The city council is currently working on its implementation for this fall’s council races. The system does not apply to the Bloomington Board of Education’s election.

Ranked-choice voting has a limited history in the United States, but growing interest in recent years. Maine has implemented ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections, and Kyle Bailey, a state representative from Maine, testified during the March 17 hearing, one of several supporters who stumped for the system in Minnesota.

Bailey reported that the cost for Maine to convert to ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections and partisan primaries was a fraction of the estimate. He touted a common selling point of ranked-choice voting, that it shifts the focus of campaigns from personalities and criticism of opponents to building a consensus.

He pointed to Maine’s Democratic gubernatorial primary of 2018 as an example of how ranked-choice voting shifted the emphasis of the campaign for the party’s nomination to the general election. The candidates spent less time comparing and contrasting each other, and instead focused on issues that would earn them top three consideration by the voters, Bailey explained.

As Elkins continues to push for expanding ranked-choice voting, he sees its adoption for Bloomington and Minnetonka city elections as beneficial. Suburban residents don’t necessarily look to Minneapolis and St. Paul as paragons of good government, he noted. “If it works well in suburban communities, it will help normalize it,” he said.

Elkins has been a proponent of ranked-choice voting for 20 years, and has been an active member of both the Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties, as well as a member of the Independence Party while serving a decade on the Bloomington City Council, beginning in 2001. He watched as prominent Independence Party candidates polled well early in their races, such as the party’s 2002 candidate for governor, Tim Penny. The support for third-party Independence Party candidates typically dried up as Election Day approached, as voters had to make a strategic choice and did not want their support of a third-party candidate to end up as a wasted vote, Elkins explained.

“Ranked-choice voting is the anecdote to that,” he said.

Information about the bill and its status is available online at tr.im/hf89.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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