DULUTH, Minn. – Residents here go to the polls in two weeks to elect City Council members and a new mayor. But the hottest race isn't over a political office. It's over how future city elections should take place.
Duluth voters will decide whether to follow in the footsteps of Minneapolis and St. Paul and adopt ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting lets citizens choose up to three candidates and rank them first, second and third among all the candidates in an election.
"When they go to count the ballots, they count everyone's first choice ballots first, and if no one gets to 50 percent plus one of the vote, they just eliminate the bottom vote-getter," Andrew Beeman with the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign explained to a would-be voter at a recent Duluth senior expo. "Everyone whose candidate was eliminated, their vote transfers to whoever they put down as their second choice."
That process, also known as instant-runoff voting, is repeated until one candidate wins a majority.
Backers say it gives voters more options. Critics say the process is too confusing and has never delivered on its promises.
Katie Humphrey, who's managing the campaign for the group FairVote Minnesota, said she became sold on ranked-choice voting while working on past political campaigns.
"The biggest complaint I heard from voters during campaign season was that voters were sick of only having two options," she said. "They were frustrated that they felt forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, and they wanted more than two choices."
Minneapolis voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2006; St. Paul voters followed suit three years later. At least eight other cities nationwide use it, including Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco.
Many cities made the switch after the 2000 presidential election, when many people believe that votes cast for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader swung the election to George W. Bush. With ranked-choice voting, advocates say, people can vote for a so-called "spoiler" candidate like Nader without fear that their least favorite candidate will get elected.
Advocates say the runoff process forces candidates to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters, not just party activists who dominate primary elections.
Many supporters, including retired doctor Bob Wahman, who's chair of the Duluth Better Ballot Campaign, say it encourages civility and more issue-based campaigning, since candidates need to also attract second- and third-choice votes.
"If you've been out discrediting and doing negative campaigning, you're going to have a hard time getting those second choices," Wahman said.
As of the end of August, FairVote Minnesota had spent more than $70,000 on the Duluth campaign. That doesn't include two TV commercials the group is running.
In response to the efforts of FairVote Minnesota, a group of citizens and politicians in Duluth have launched a counter campaign called Keep Voting Simple.
"We have a history of transparent and trusted elections here in Duluth with consistently high voter turnout," said Cathy Schuyler, who introduced the effort at a recent press conference. "We don't need to experiment with our voting system. Keep voting simple. Vote no on RCV."
Outgoing Duluth Mayor Don Ness and several council members also oppose ranked-choice voting, arguing that it's confusing.
They also point out that in the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election, the top three choices on nearly 20 percent of ballots were eliminated before the final count.
Ranked-choice voting hasn't delivered on its biggest promise to boost voter participation, said Duluth City Council member Joel Sipress.
"The 2003 and 2007 (Duluth) mayoral primaries, which were our last two hotly contested primaries, those primaries had higher voter turnout than the general election in Minneapolis in 2013, that ranked-choice voting advocates like to crow about," Sipress said. "We already have higher turnout in our mayoral primaries than Minneapolis does in their ranked-choice voting general elections."
While it's hard to draw many conclusions from two ranked-choice vote elections in Minneapolis, it's tough at this point to argue the process delivered on its main promises, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz.
"It's hard to say that it has produced tremendously new choices, hard to say it really has dramatically increased voter turnout," he said.
On the flip side, the Minneapolis experience also doesn't necessarily support arguments against ranked-choice voting, he added. "For the critics who say it's been horrible, we can also say that it really hasn't led to voter confusion."
Confusion in the first Minneapolis election in 2009 largely disappeared once the city put more emphasis on educating voters four years later, he noted, adding, "Polls suggested high satisfaction with voters. And so it really is a mixed picture."
Schultz believes the strongest argument in favor of ranked-choice voting may be simply that sometimes it's worth experimenting. To see if there are different electoral methods that lead to greater voter satisfaction.
Election observers outside of Minnesota are watching to see how cities here tinker with their elections, said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
"It does become a real world test case for the kind of election laws that ranked-choice supporters are promoting," he said. "It provides us an opportunity to sort of get beyond theory."