Fargo commission delays action on election reform proposals

FARGO - The Fargo City Commission delayed a decision on Monday, Oct. 23, on whether to place election reform on the ballot.Instead, commissioners approved a proposal instructing its elections task force to hold at least one "public engagement" me...

FARGO - The Fargo City Commission delayed a decision on Monday, Oct. 23, on whether to place election reform on the ballot.

Instead, commissioners approved a proposal instructing its elections task force to hold at least one "public engagement" meeting to inform the public about its recommendations. Commissioners also approved a motion requiring the commission decide before the end of the year on whether to place any election reform proposals on the ballot.

What happened at Monday's meeting was a surprise because Commissioner Tony Grindberg was expected to introduce a resolution asking commissioners to consider placing two election reform proposals on the June election ballot: one to establish a two-stage primary/general election system for electing mayor and city commissioner, and the other to increase the size of the commission from five to seven members. But he did not do that.

Commissioner John Strand has repeatedly argued that the commission should instead vote on whether to place two recommendations made by the city's Elections and Governance Task Force on the ballot. That argument seemed to win greater support by Monday's meeting. Even Grindberg expressed support for that principle.

"We created this task force," Grindberg said. "It's our job to resolve it. Many in the public are waiting for us to make a decision."

The City Commission formed the Elections and Governance Task Force in August 2016 to consider and make recommendations for election reform. It considered a variety of proposals, but could only agree on two recommendations.

The task force delivered its recommendations in February. It recommended increasing the size of the City Commission from five to seven members to reflect the growth of the city. But it also recommended a novel system of voting called "approval voting." But approval voting is untested and no city commissioner has been willing to express support for it.

Approval voting is a system that would allow voters to vote for as many candidates on a ballot as they like. But approval voting is a new idea that remains untested. No other city in the United States uses it. The task force recommended approval voting as a way to address the problem of vote splitting and the fact that winning candidates in recent elections have received low vote percentages.

Vote splitting is a phenomenon that occurs when voters are forced to choose between ideologically similar candidates because they are limited in how many votes they can cast. For example, in Moorhead's mayoral election in 2013, Del Rae Williams defeated two more conservative candidates who split the conservative vote.

Recent Fargo City Commission elections have had a large number of candidates on the ballot, but even winning candidates have earned relatively small voter percentages. In the June 2016 election, the two candidates elected, Grindberg and Strand, received just 16.1 and 14.9 percent of the vote respectively among 11 candidates on the ballot. Under the present system, voters can vote for only the number of open seats on the commission.

With no city commissioners willing to back approval voting, Commissioner Grindberg instead proposed the city switch to a primary/general election system. But such a system was rejected by the elections task force.

Several commissioners expressed concern about implementing a primary system because it would extend the election process and might create "voter fatigue," reducing voter turnout. A primary system wouldn't eliminate vote splitting or assure a winning candidate would get a majority of the vote.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn questioned the need for any type of election reform and said he believed the City Commission had more important issues to address.

"I haven't had one person call me, e-mail me, text me - why are we doing this?" he asked. "No one cares. We have a lot of important things going on in our city and this isn't one of them."