Fargo poised to study election changes, including wards, runoffs and bigger commission

FARGO-Only about one-quarter of the 230 American cities larger than Fargo elect leaders at-large, without districts or wards, as Fargo does.Of those 63 cities, about half hold city elections without a runoff or primary, as Fargo does.That combina...
Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, from right, instructs people who object with their home's assessed value to register their complaint with city staff during a meeting of the Fargo Board of Equalization on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, with Melissa Sobolik, Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney and Mike Williams.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO-Only about one-quarter of the 230 American cities larger than Fargo elect leaders at-large, without districts or wards, as Fargo does.

Of those 63 cities, about half hold city elections without a runoff or primary, as Fargo does.

That combination can lead to elected officials taking office without anything close to a majority, with no guarantee that the whole city is represented.

It's a relatively small club Fargo may soon leave.

Mayor Tim Mahoney said he plans to propose a study of other methods for electing city leaders at the City Commission's meeting Tuesday, July 5. He said he wants a committee to look into runoff voting, ward systems and whether the commission needs more than five members, a count that includes the mayor's seat.

Public calls for changing how Fargo chooses its city leaders came before and after last month's municipal election, in which the two winners in an 11-candidate field drew 16 percent and 15 percent of the roughly 32,000 votes cast.

Mahoney's proposal to study election changes appears to be a lock to pass. Both new commissioners, former School Board member John Strand and former state legislator Tony Grindberg, said after the election that they were uncomfortable with the small percentage of votes that swept them into office and wanted to study ways to address the issue.

In the past, Fargo has used a runoff system, which eliminates candidates until one has a majority of votes. Voters rejected it 16 years ago in favor of the current plurality system.

But there's also some push for moving to districting. Strand, who garnered 15 percent in the June 14 election to win his commission seat, said in years past, several commissioners have lived near the downtown area, which he said concentrated power in a few votes.

Four of the five city commissioners now live in south Fargo. Dave Piepkorn is the only commissioner who lives north of downtown.

"In Fargo you have this small number of people representing this wide geographic area," said Barbara Headrick, a political science professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. "With a ward system, you can't have basically the entire City Commission living in the same general area."

Among the 230 cities bigger than Fargo, 103 use a ward system, 63 elect leaders at-large, and 64 use a mix of both.

Headrick said the age of cities has more influence on what type of system they use than their size. She said cities in the eastern U.S. often use a ward system, and western cities tend toward an at-large system, like Fargo.

"With an at-large system, the idea was there would be less of a party machine controlling a neighborhood," she said.

But Headrick said a ward system could ensure each geographic area of a city is well represented, especially when cities are large geographically. Though Moorhead's population is about one-third of Fargo's, it uses a system in which each of the city's four wards elects two council members.

"Fargo has to decide what they consider the type of representation they want to have in their more substantially sized city," Headrick said.

Mahoney said he's happy with the current at-large representation. A ward system could encourage commissioners to favor specific areas over the city as a whole, he said.

"You're constantly trying to get elected, you're constantly trying to make the ward happy," he said. "With at-large candidates, you make the city of Fargo happy."

But some sitting commissioners see merit in changing to a ward system. Tony Gehrig, a first-term commission member elected in 2015, said the thinks more attention has been placed on downtown Fargo than any other part of the city in the last decade. Having commission districts or wards could ensure balance, he said.

"It seems like all we're doing is downtown," Gehrig said. "I feel like there's no representation for other places."

Fargo city commissioners are elected solely based on the number of votes received. In 1986, the city adopted a runoff system, which Headrick said is intended to create majorities for candidates. In instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one candidate receives a majority, the one with fewest is thrown out and those ballots are added to the voters' second choices until a majority is established.

In another type of runoff, if no candidate receives a majority in a first round of voting, a second round is called later after the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated.

"I'm not convinced runoffs change anything," Strand said.

Headrick said that system usually leads to low turnout in the later rounds.

Gehrig is opposed to a runoff system for that reason. If your favorite candidate loses, he wrote in a recent letter to the editor, "you generally didn't go back to vote for someone else."

"Therefore, the people who got the top two spots going into the runoff always won anyway," Gehrig wrote. "That of course means the runoff never changed the outcome."