FARGO — If one thing's certain about this year's City Commission election, the circumstances are strange.
Not only will Fargo residents vote by mail-in ballot only because of coronavirus concerns, but this year is the debut of the city's new approval voting system.
Approval voting is fairly simple: People can vote for as many candidates as they want. In this election with two open seats, the two top vote-getters will win. For the June 9 election, this system only applies to the City Commission race, not other local contests.
"It's like any other race, the only difference is you can vote for more than two candidates," said Cass County Finance Director Mike Montplaisir, who runs elections for the city and county.
Despite the new system, some voters may still only want to vote for one candidate.
City Commission candidate Edward Krystosek predicts that will happen. So does political science professor Mark Johnson, who has studied elections for 20 years and works for Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead.
Johnson said in the last city of Fargo election about 20% of voters only picked one candidate, even though more than one seat was open and voters were asked to vote for a candidate to fill each seat. In 2012, that figure was as high as 40%, he said.
The bottom line, though, is that no one knows how this new system of voting will turn out.
"I can't even begin to predict what it will mean," said City Commissioner John Strand, who's seeking reelection to a second term.
Arlette Preston, who's seeking to return to the commission after serving in the 1990s, said, "it'll be interesting to see if it has an impact."
"This election is so crazy in so many ways that it might be impossible to tell how it's going to work," Preston added.
All of the six candidates running for two open seats on the City Commission seemed willing to give the system a try.
"It might give us better insight into who has the highest approval," Krystosek said. "But it might skew results, too, with some only going to vote for one candidate. I have no problem trying it out."
Candidate Doug Rymph agreed. "This is the first time. Let's see how it goes," he said.
City Commissioner Tony Grindberg, who's seeking his second term, said he "wholeheartedly endorses" the new system as it was a citizen-led initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved by a 63% to 36% margin in the 2018 election.
One concern that led to the new system was that in recent city elections, candidates who had only about 15% to 20% of the vote were elected.
Grindberg, a former state senator, said he's a believer in the system in which a candidate needs 50% of the vote plus one to win. He doesn't know if a candidate will reach that level in this year's election.
Johnson doesn't think so. He said the reason some commissioners were previously elected with only a small percentage of the vote was because there were so many candidates in recent years, including 11 for two seats in 2016.
An opponent of this new approval voting system, Johnson said it's been tried before around the world, only to go away.
"It's untested," he said. "It's not used anywhere."
He said ironically the system encourages "single shot" voting with a voter only picking one candidate.
The Center for Election Science, which researches better voting systems and financially supported the 2018 Fargo vote, recently sent out a mailing to voters explaining the new system with a look at a new sample ballot. The national group believes approval voting will give people more choices and lead to less polarization.
Johnson said a better answer, though, is to have the city commission system go to a "city council" form of government where commissioners aren't given a "portfolio of departments to oversee" and to also increase its size from five to maybe 7 to 11 people with the city divided into wards.
"Fargo has the smallest city council per capita in the entire Midwest," Johnson said.
The approval voting system, however, will be in place for the foreseeable future. And Johnson, like the candidates, doesn't know what will happen.
Because it's such an odd election, it "won't tell us anything," Johnson said, noting that it might take several more election cycles to see its effects.
"Call me again in maybe 2026," he said.