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Port: Elections in North Dakota should work the same way no matter where you live

"North Dakota votes should be counted the same, whether they're cast for the mayor of Fargo, the dog catcher of Dickinson, or the governor of the whole dang state."

Approval Voting
The ballot language for a home rule charter amendment that implemented approval voting in Fargo.
File photo
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MINOT, N.D. — Thanks to a local ballot initiative approved by voters, the city of Fargo has changed how municipal elections work so that they're fundamentally different from every other election in the state of North Dakota.

The city now uses approval voting in elections for city officials, including mayoral and city commission seats. It's a method sometimes confused with ranked-choice voting, which has made national headlines after it was used in Alaska , with a great deal of controversy, in a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Don Young, who had passed away.

A ranked-choice system asks voters to prioritize the candidates. You have a first choice, then a second choice, etc. Once the votes are counted, if no candidate has 50% of the first-rank votes, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, and the second-rank votes are counted.

Approval voting, which is what Fargo is using, is a bit different in that voters don't rank the candidates. Instead, they vote for all the candidates they approve of. The candidate with the most votes wins.

It seems a nice proposal if you squint your eyes and ignore certain realities about politics and human nature. As a practical reality, approval undermines the very needful concept of electoral mandates. We generally concede that an elected official has the authority to govern us because that authority is rooted in the people's will. Approval voting dilutes that will, making it unclear which candidate, and which governing agenda, the people most strongly supported.

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The supporters of Fargo's system said they wanted to do away with situations where the winner of crowded elections got only a small plurality of the vote. But approval voting doesn't fix that problem. It only obscures it by allowing voters to dilute their votes at the ballot box.

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This, I imagine, is part of why Rep. Ben Koppelman, a Republican from West Fargo, has introduced House Bill 1273 , which would make both approval and ranked-choice voting schemes illegal under state law.

My only quibble with the legislation is that, instead of banning specific types of election schemes, it ought to mandate that all political subdivisions of our state use the traditional first-past-the-vote method (also called plurality voting), which North Dakota has been using to settle elections since statehood.

While approval and ranked-choice voting are bad schemes in their own right, a more important argument against them is their only intermittent use in only some jurisdictions in the state.

That's not how it should be. How your vote is counted shouldn't hinge on which political subdivision you're living in.

North Dakota votes should be counted the same, whether they're cast for the mayor of Fargo, or the dog catcher of Dickinson, or the governor of the whole dang state.

I disapprove of ranked-choice and approval voting, but more important than that, I am against turning our election laws into a maze of different methods.

Whatever method we use, elections in our state should be uniform.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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