FARGO — The city of Fargo made election history Tuesday, June 9, in becoming the first city in the United States to use approval voting in a municipal election, according to an electoral reform group.
Approval voting became the standard for Fargo’s City Commission elections in 2018, when voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum in support of the change. The voting method allows voters to choose all of the candidates they approve of in a given race.
“It’s exciting that we got to leave our mark towards hopefully making elections better in our region and around the country,” said Jed Limke, who organized Reform Fargo, a group that pushed for the change. “To be the first city to do this is a really big deal.”
Limke also served on the Governance and Elections Task Force, which recommended approval voting.
Tuesday’s City Commission election was the first municipal race to feature approval voting, according to the Center For Election Science, an advocacy group that promotes changes aimed at creating consensus in election results.
Commissioner John Strand and Arlette Preston appeared to have won in preliminary results. The final results will be announced Monday, June 15.
“We had election after election where we couldn’t tell as the voting public if our candidates truly had the support of the people,” Limke said, referencing instances in which candidates won with as little as one-fifth of the vote.
Mark Johnson, a political science and history professor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead, said preliminary results on the success of approval voting are inconclusive, as the "bullet rate" — the percentage of people who voted for a single candidate — is not yet known.
“We don’t know yet what the bullet rate was because we don’t know the number of ballots cast in the city versus the county as a whole,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to draw any conclusions at this point.”
Johnson said trying to isolate the effects of approval voting in this election is a “fool’s errand” as the race featured fewer candidates than in years past and because the COVID-19 pandemic limited campaigning to the virtual world and voting to mail-in ballots.
The issue is not the voting method but rather representation, Johnson added. Fargo's City Commission seats represent the whole city instead of individual districts.
“From my viewpoint, the issue we have in Fargo is that we have a very small city commission, much smaller per capita than any similarly-sized city in the Midwest, and we’re still running elections at-large,” he said.
According to Johnson, Fargo is the only city in the region — stretching as far west as Billings, Mont., as far east as Duluth, Minn., and as far south as Lincoln, Neb. — with a population of over 100,000 to conduct at-large elections.
Asking a group of five to represent the viewpoints of a city of Fargo’s size "isn't realistic", Johnson said.
“If we fix the representation problem first, then most of the concerns that led to the Task Force and the adoption of approval voting are mitigated,” he concluded.
Johnson added that a mix of at-large voting and a ward system would be a “nice compromise”, referencing Duluth, Sioux Falls, S.D., and St. Cloud, Minn., as some regional cities which use such a mix.
County Finance Director and Elections Administrator Mike Montplaisir said it's likely many voters did not vote for as many candidates as possible.
Montplaisir reported 16,968 ballots cast in Fargo. Since voters could vote for all seven candidates plus two write-ins, the number of possible votes in the city commission race was 152,712. The race received 38,877 votes, indicating that on average, Fargoans chose 2.3 candidates per ballot.
He was unable to determine the percentage of voters who chose one or multiple candidates, stating the system was not designed to produce such granular information.
Limke and Aaron Hamlin, executive director of the Center for Election Research, both noted that results on the Secretary of State’s website made approval rates appear lower.
Using city ballot measures as a proxy, Hamlin estimated that Strand and Preston earned approval rates of 58% and 56%, respectively. Preliminary results Tuesday night showed Strand had 24% of the vote and Preston had 23%.
Voters will next encounter approval voting in the 2022 city elections. Until then, Limke is eyeing further improvements to area elections.
“We didn’t create an organization to last for one election and then disappear,” he said.
This story has been updated to list the correct date final election results are expected.