Richard Carlbom: Ranked voting: A better way to elect school leaders

The DFL convention for the St. Paul School Board reflects a highly competitive and potentially divisive school board race ahead. If it's anything like the school board race in Minneapolis last year, we should brace ourselves for acrimony and mudslinging.

The tone of last year's Minneapolis school board race, conducted under traditional election rules, stood in stark contrast to the mayoral and city council races a year earlier in which ranked voting was used. The mayoral election was especially competitive and had the potential to be highly negative, but it wasn't. One reason is that ranked voting provides a tangible, vote-getting reason to stay positive and focused on the issues.

And it's why I'm particularly excited about this year's municipal election in St. Paul -- and why I hope that one day soon our school leaders will also be elected using ranked voting.

Why? Because I still believe in electoral politics as a path to positive change ... and because using ranked voting, as St. Paul does to elect our municipal leaders, helps bring out the best in the political process.

Once again, St. Paul voters in wards with competitive, multi-candidate races -- this time, that potentially includes wards 1, 2 and 5 -- will get the chance to use ranked voting to choose our city councilors.

That means we get to rank our ballots -- first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. -- rather than selecting just one. It's a smarter, fairer, more representative way to do democracy, for so many reasons.

First, it dramatically reduces vitriol and attack campaigning. To win under this system, you've got to be able to reach out to other candidates' supporters and ask for second- or third-choice votes. If you slam their favorite candidate, you've alienated a potential supporter whose second-choice vote might have helped you prevail. Instead, you have a powerful incentive to keep it positive and substantive, to talk about your own experience, ideas, and vision, and to focus on the issues.

And by eliminating the need for a municipal primary -- invariably a poorly attended, poorly publicized election in which a tiny subset of older, whiter, wealthier voters do the critical "culling" of candidates before most people get a chance to plug in -- ranked voting ensures that more voters get to participate in choosing our leaders.

I've heard critics of ranked voting say that more candidates on the ballot becomes confusing or overwhelming for voters, yet they never explain why that small subset of primary voters is somehow capable of handling more choice. My career has been all about inclusion -- I believe democracy is for everybody -- and by broadening participation in our elections, this system gets us much closer to that ideal.

Data from each of the past ranked-voting elections in St. Paul and Minneapolis show that voters across all demographics know perfectly well how to use this system, appreciate its benefits, and want to keep using it. People of all ages, incomes, ethnicities and education levels love the civility it engenders; they're more than ready to evaluate candidates based on their positions and ideas instead of sorting through ad hominem attacks.

Let's engage in a rich, constructive citywide discussion of the issues as we head into campaign season. We can show the rest of the country, once again, how to do politics right.

Richard Carlbom of St. Paul is a co-founder of a consulting and public affairs firm. Previously, he was campaign manager of Minnesotans United for All Families, which successfully challenged the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.