Authored on March 13, 2019
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This story comes from the March 1, 2019 Bloomington Sun Current.

When Steve Elkins served on the nonpartisan Bloomington City Council, he realized that it might have been harder to earn, or hold onto, the seat had he been identified by his party.

The Minnesota House District 49B Democrat was an active member of the Independence Party during the 2000s, winning election to the city council in the fall of 2001 and resigning in 2011 when he was appointed to the Metropolitan Council. Had he run for election or re-election under the party banner against challengers representing the Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican parties, perhaps he wouldn’t have won his council seat back in 2001.

Elkins ran for the state House last fall as a Democrat, with endorsements from both the DFL and Independence Party. Now serving in St. Paul, Elkins is leading the charge to give third-party candidates a better chance at winning election at the local level. Elkins is the chief author of a bill aimed at streamlining and easing the process for cities, counties and school districts to institute ranked-choice voting for their elections.

Beyond giving third-party candidates a chance to compete in an election, ranked-choice voting “is seen as a way to promote civility in elections,” Elkins said.

The system has been adopted by Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to cast multiple votes, in order of preference. Voters can cast a vote for the candidate they prefer, knowing that if a candidate doesn’t garner enough votes to win the election and is eliminated from consideration due to a low vote total, the ballot will count toward the voter’s second choice. The system is also known as instant runoff voting, according to FairVote Minnesota, the organization lobbying for ranked-choice voting.

When there are multiple choices in an election, such as a governor’s race which often features several candidates representing minor parties, some voters retreat to choosing the person they think is the “least bad candidate who has a better chance of winning,” Elkins explained.

In addition to opening the door to third-party candidates, the system is touted as a way to encourage candidates to discuss issues rather than criticize their opponents, according to Elkins. “It is seen as a way to promote civility in elections,” he said. “It tends to reduce the negativity that you see in campaigning.”

The system also eliminates the need for, and expense associated with, primary elections. In Bloomington’s city council elections, for example, a primary election is held when three or more candidates file for a city council seat. That August primary election narrows the field down to two candidates for the November ballot, but turnout for city elections – which are off-year elections from county, state and federal elections – only draw about 5 percent of eligible voters, Elkins pointed out.

The proposal being proffered in St. Paul wouldn’t mandate that local elections use a ranked-choice system. Minnesota’s charter cities, approximately 15 percent of cities in the state, are already allowed to switch to ranked-choice voting, but the bill is aimed at streamlining the process for switching to the system while allowing school districts and county governments to do the same thing, Elkins explained.

“I support this bill because it gives local communities the flexibility to make their own decisions about local voting options,” said House District 50A Rep. Michael Howard (D-Richfield), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Although ranked-choice voting is new to Minnesota, it is not a new idea, and has been adopted elsewhere around the country.

“A good trial for this would be in the presidential primaries next year,” according to Elkins.

With a wide field of Democratic contenders expected to vie for their party’s nomination for president in 2020, Minnesota will hold a traditional primary election next year, as the winner of Minnesota’s presidential primary will likely do so with a tiny plurality, according to Elkins. Using ranked-choice voting the outcome may be different, and provide more centrist candidates with a better chance of earning the state’s endorsement, he explained.

The bill’s sponsors also include House District 50B Rep. Andrew Carlson (D-Bloomington) and House District 49A Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina).

Although the system is deemed a success in its limited use in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a bill opening the door to ranked-choice voting will see opposition, according to Elkins. The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate will be a tougher sell, as the Republican Party has been less supportive of the change, likely because third parties have been less detrimental to Republican candidates in recent years than they have to Democratic candidates, Elkins said.

Information about the bill, which was heard by the Subcommittee on Elections Feb. 20, is available online at