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All of the Above? The Ancient Voting Method One City Might Adopt

Advocates say "approval voting," which has never been used in electoral politics, offers voters more flexibility.

fargo approval voting
A polling place in North Dakota. Voters in the city of Fargo may soon have a different method for selecting candidates.
(AP/LM Otero)
For a full summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

It can be tough for voters to choose which person to support when elections feature multiple qualified candidates who are jockeying for the same position. Voters in Fargo, N.D., might be relieved of that burden of choice.

Next month, Fargo voters will decide whether to adopt a ballot measure that would create a system known as "approval voting" for local elections. The idea is simple: Everybody can vote for as many candidates as they'd like. If there are four candidates for the city commission, you could choose to vote for one of them, or for two, or for the whole lot. Unlike the other multiple-choice method known as ranked-choice voting, which is gaining favor in some places, each vote would count the same. The person with the highest total would win.

Approval voting gives people more flexibility in making their selections, says Jed Limke, head of Reform Fargo, which is promoting the measure. They don't have to worry about wasting votes on spoilers with little chance of winning since they can also vote for candidates expected to be more popular. In theory, however, candidates with extreme viewpoints would have a harder time since the winner would have to be broadly acceptable to most voters.

Approval voting is actually an ancient system. It was used in medieval times to select popes, and it's been used by some associations and Dartmouth College to select board members. But in terms of electoral politics in the United States, it would be something entirely new.

"It hasn't been used in any actual governing system since at least World War I," says Mark L. Johnson, a political scientist at Minnesota State Community and Technical College.

Its novelty is not the problem, Johnson says. When approval voting is used, most people end up worrying that their top choice could lose since votes are spread thin among many candidates. The vast majority of voters at Dartmouth and elsewhere have ended up voting for a single candidate even though they have the option of voting for several.

The method also doesn't solve the underlying issues Fargo wants to address.

The referendum was recommended by a task force that had been convened to deal with issues in recent local elections, namely commissioners being elected by small pluralities from big fields. Approval voting would do nothing to give winning candidates a larger mandate since they will be competing for more votes, even if there are the same number of voters casting ballots.

The city would be better off if it extended early voting or encouraged absentee voting, says Commissioner Tony Gehrig.

"Approval voting does not fix the problem of voter turnout," he says. "It actually makes it more confusing."

Gehrig and other critics like to point out that Reform Fargo has received the bulk of its funding from out-of-state sources that they say want to use Fargo as a petri dish for the latest voting experiment. There is no organized opposition campaign. Still, no one is confident of the outcome, especially since it will be at the bottom of a long ballot that also features an expensive U.S. Senate race and a statewide marijuana legalization measure -- both of which have dominated the political discussion.

"If I say abortion, immediately almost every voter not only knows what I'm talking about but has an opinion about it," Limke says. "When I walk into the same room and say 'election method'? Crickets."

For a full summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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