Authored on November 22, 2013

Editorial, November 19, 2013

 Say what you will about Rochester City Council member Michael Wojcik, but he deserves high marks for perseverance.

In January 2010, Wojcik went before the Rochester Charter Commission and made a 40-minute presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides and handouts. He clearly had read the city charter cover-to-cover, and his primary areas of concern were with the city's election process. Among seven suggestions he made were a switch to ranked-choice voting and nixing the council's ability to appoint replacements when a sitting council member resigns or passes away.

Former Rochester City Attorney Fred Suhler, who remains a charter commission member today, publicly scolded Wojcik for both the style and substance of his presentation, telling him that none of his ideas were likely to gain unanimous approval by the City Council, and that "you're treating us like a bunch of children here."

Not surprisingly, Wojcik's ideas went nowhere with the commission that day.

Charter commission members had occasion to think back about that meeting after Rochester City Council President Dennis Hanson died in 2012. This tragedy set in motion a yearlong saga that included a seemingly endless election process which, as a nonpartisan race with multiple candidates, seemed tailor-made for ranked-choice voting.

Wojcik has continued to champion the idea, and in January, the charter commission agreed to create a task force that would study ranked-choice voting.

That task force, however, never actually convened a meeting, and this week, the charter commission effectively nixed any possibility it will study ranked-choice voting, let alone recommend it to the City Council.

This puzzles us. Granted, Wojcik isn't the charter commission's favorite person, but we find this decision to be needlessly dismissive. Especially troubling are remarks from Marcia Marcoux whose council seat Wojcik claimed in the 2008 election that "we're just not at the point where we feel that we're ready to look at it as far as information available."

Isn't that what the task force should have been doing for the last 10 months? Gathering information? Looking at how ranked-choice voting has worked (or hasn't worked) in the many cities that already use it?

We're far from convinced that ranked-choice voting is right for Rochester. The mere fact that other cities now use it doesn't mean it's a perfect system. It's not. It can be difficult to explain, and it doesn't guarantee that the eventual winner will be "ranked" by a majority of voters. Depending on how many candidates are in the field and how diligent voters are in identifying their second and third choices, there can be instances in which winners of elections were supported on less than 50 percent of ballots. It's happened in San Francisco, Oakland and Minneapolis.

The advantages? Well, Rochester would have at least $60,000 more in its coffers if we'd used ranked-choice voting to select Hanson's replacement, rather than multiple special elections to winnow the field. No longer would city officials cringe when a third candidate throws his or her hat into a local race, creating the need for a primary.

Furthermore, one can make a fairly strong argument that ranked-choice voting makes for a more positive campaign season. Candidates who know that their victory or defeat might very well hinge on second-place votes are less likely to bash their opponents. Think about it if there are three candidates in a mayoral race (call them A, B and C), and your first choice is C, how likely are you to list A as your second choice if A spent the previous three months running negative ads about C?

There is, however, a bigger issue at play. Sen. David Senjem, a recent appointee to the charter commission, says ranked-choice voting would introduce partisanship into local elections.

That's a fascinating statement, and it's at least partially true. Generally speaking, Republicans oppose ranked-choice voting, and Democrats support it. (Third-party supporters love it, as it lets them cast their "protest" votes against the two established parties, then support one of those parties with their second choice. Both parties, therefore, must actively seek the third-party vote or at least be careful not to offend such voters.)

But the mere fact that some people dislike a certain election method doesn't mean it is partisan, and we fail to understand how ranked-choice voting would introduce partisanship into local, nonpartisan elections. The system is the same for all candidates, and it has nothing to do with such red-button issues as Voter ID or online registration.

Wojcik has indicated that he isn't interested in leading a petition drive that could ultimately lead to a referendum on ranked-choice voting. That's probably a wise move for a sitting council member.

But we believe this voting method is worthy of far more serious consideration than it seems to have been given by the charter commission and we would be pleased to see someone begin seeking signatures to put this issue on a future ballot.