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With Maine opting for ranked-choice voting, are Minnesota and others to follow?

How often does it come down to a choice weighed “between the lesser of two evils” in American politics?

Maybe that’s something of a hyperbolic expression in today’s polarized political environment, but there’s no denying American voters are often voting against someone or some policy as much as they’re voting for someone or a specific policy measure -- contests, compared to decades past, featuring no shortage of mud-slinging and second-guessing.

Look no further than the 2016 presidential election when the two major candidates -- Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton -- sported the two lowest approval ratings in U.S. election history. No matter how one slices it, the president-elect was going to be a widely disliked figure, irrespective of who got elected Nov. 8, 2016.

That isn’t to say every elected official has to be America’s sweetheart, but it poses questions for a system supposedly built on delegating powers and responsibilities to whoever is able to win the faith of a majority electorate.

Which takes the issue to Maine, Nov. 6, 2018 -- the first state in the union to utilize a ranked-choice or “instant runoff” system for its elections.

Some say the United States’ traditional “first past the post” or “winner takes all” system fosters the duopoly of power enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans -- and thus, the dilemma between two “evils.” Proponents of ranked-choice voting are pointing to Maine’s 2018 elections as a watershed moment, the first statewide implementation of a system that has, until now, only seen usage in nine cities across the nation.

“It really has now established a model of hope for the rest of the country,” said Jeanne Massey, the executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota and an active participant in Maine’s push for ranked-choice voting. “To have this done at a city level, it just doesn’t have the same hype as when it’s a statewide partisan race. It’s just not as germane to everyone.”

Unlike traditional first-past-the-post voting -- a raw tally of whoever gets the most votes, wins -- voters in a ranked-voter system are allowed to rank candidates in numerical preference.

Simply put, it’s billed as a method enabling voters to vote their conscience with the comforting knowledge if their first choice is eliminated, their lower-ranked votes are redistributed to other candidates still in play until the victor eventually garners more total votes and achieves a convincing majority.

Maine may be the first domino to fall among a number of states considering the ranked-choice voting system -- from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, Colorado to Michigan and Minnesota to Utah.

With how government is structured in Minnesota, implementing this system would require the approval of the state Legislature (instead of, say, a direct public referendum), or, the more difficult option, an amendment to the state constitution.

Whether lawmakers would be on board with shifting the mechanisms of power they’re ultimately tied to is largely a matter of speculation -- though there is plenty of support for the initiative on both sides of the aisle, Massey noted.

The bigger issue, she noted, is the current system. First-past-the-post voting is harmful to democracy and inhibits the voice of the majority, Massey said, which has led to decades of increasing polarization, dysfunction and tribalism, as well as an overwhelming predominance of ugly smear-campaigning.

“Instead, it (ranked-choice voting) forces you to focus on why you’re better, not why someone else is worse,” said Massey, pointing to results in St. Paul, Minneapolis and now the state of Maine. “We’re seeing the reduced influence of the money in campaigns because that money doesn’t produce winning candidates. Instead of putting money into a PAC, it’s a better idea to get some volunteers and ground game going.”

Instead of funneling cash into aggressive campaigns and hammering at their own voter base, candidates favor ranked-choice voting once it’s implemented, Massey said, and it fosters politics seeking to serve the entire populace, instead of an active voter minority that doesn’t constitute a mandate.

“Our democracy is in such peril right now, this is the only way forward,” Massey said. “If we don’t reform it in the structure, it may not survive.”

Posing the problem to students

In discussions with the Dispatch, students at Central Lakes College were divided -- displaying, by their comments, a whole spectrum from outright rejection to skepticism to interest and approval of ranked-choice voting.

During a Student Senate meeting Wednesday, Nov. 21, Parker Kline voiced similar stances to arguments by proponents that a ranked-choice system can empower third parties.

Essentially, he said, it enables voters to vote by their convictions, instead of surrendering to current limitations and voting along party lines for candidates that have a realistic chance, but don’t represent their values as closely as candidates outside the entrenched dual-party system.

“On the upside, there is a benefit in my opinion, it can reduce voter apathy,” Kline said. “If you think about it, the voter can say, ‘Well, shoot, my candidate didn’t win, my vote doesn’t count. Maybe I shouldn’t vote at all.’ In this case, their vote still counts. It doesn’t go to waste if the party they originally voted for does not win.”  

Mike Hartwig -- a self-avowed advocate for third-party candidates who’s spent time and effort knocking on doors for alternative candidates -- said he disagreed with ranked-choice voting and criticized the complacency of individuals who feed into Republican-Democrat dominance.

“Don’t use that excuse of, ‘I’m wasting my vote on a third party.’ The more people we have that votes third party, the higher chance we have of breaking the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats,” Hartwig said. “There’s no real sense in changing the way we vote, just the way we personally vote, and it would fix the problem.”

The case of Duluth

While ranked-choice voting found a home in two Minnesota cities -- St. Paul and Minneapolis -- it’s floundered in Greater Minnesota, getting struck down with 15,564 “no” votes to 5,271 “yes” votes during a 2015 ballot initiative for Duluth’s citywide offices.

Voicing their opposition to ranked-choice voting were former Vice President Walter Mondale, then-outgoing Duluth Mayor Don Ness and a majority of the current city councilors, including Second District Councilor Joel Sipress.

During a phone interview Wednesday, Nov. 21, Sipress said he was more supportive of ranked-choice voting in partisan statewide races over nonpartisan city or municipality races with a top-two primary system. Specifically, while these measures aren’t necessary with a top-two primary system addressing the problem of “wasted votes,” it only presents convoluted and long ballots with confusing rules leading to more voter error, he said.

“It puts voters in a position where they’re supposed to make ranked choices about a long list of candidates that they may know little or nothing about,” Sipress said. “Everyone is thrown on the ballot. There’s no party affiliation. You not only have to make an informed decision on one favorite candidate, but ranking a long list of candidates.”

It also means voters trade “the problem of the wasted vote” for “the problem of the exhausted ballot” or, as Sipress noted, when voters’ preferences are all eliminated and their ballots are non-factors in the final rounds. He said it could render about a fourth of voters essentially null in the process.

Sipress also expressed skepticism in ranked-choice voting and its ability to legitimize third-party initiatives -- more or less, even if substantial groups put third-party candidates as their first preference, often these candidates would be eliminated in favor of more mainstream, dominant party candidates that can garner a larger majority as lower-ranked options.

“Ranked-choice voting doesn’t necessarily help third parties,” said Sipress, who also noted there’s no evidence ranked-choice voting mitigates political polarization.“You still need 50 percent plus 1 past the final round of counting and ranked-choice voting doesn't do anything to help third-party candidates overcome that hurdle. It would enable third-party candidates to make a splash in the first round of votes before they’re eliminated.”

Ranked-choice voting -- in municipality races, like those in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- has been shown to display an uptick in voter error, at least in its initial rollout.

In terms of costs to adjust the current electoral system to support a ranked-choice voting system, it’s difficult to determine -- for example, while the city of Sante Fe, N.M., spent $100,000 to make the change for a municipality of roughly 83,000 people, Maine made the switch at the cost of $80,000 for a population of about 1.3 million.