Fargo Considers Whether to Turn Local Elections into a Voting System of Likes (and Dislikes)

Measure 1 would introduce "approval voting" to the city, meaning voters wouldn't have to abandon independent and third-party choices.


Approval voting
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As voters in Maine prepare to rank their choices for Congress in November instead of voting for just one candidate, citizens in Fargo, North Dakota, will be deciding whether to change their local elections to allow voters to simply approve or oppose each local candidate for office.

It's called "approval voting," and residents of Fargo (population: 120,000) are being asked in a ballot initiative if they'd like to be the first municipality in the United States to try it.

Rather than simply voting for one candidate, voters in this system are asked to approve or oppose each person on the ballot. The votes are all tallied, and the candidate with the most approval votes is declared the winner. Much like Maine's ranked-choice instant runoff voting system, this approach doesn't lock voters into supporting a single candidate. It thus allows voters to support third-party and independent candidates if they like them, without having to "throw their vote away" or spoil the chances of a major-party candidate they also support.

Approval voting is a pet project of The Center for Election Science, and the group has been involved in the education campaign in Fargo running up to the election. Polls show that support for this change is high, twice that of those who oppose the change. But more than a third of those polled say that they are undecided, so the center has some work ahead.

"We're optimistic," says Aaron Hamlin, executive director and co-founder of the center. "We're continuing outreach and getting more endorsements for the measure."

The Center didn't just pick Fargo as some sort of random test, Hamlin explains. In 2015, for an election for a city commissioner, voters had six candidates to choose from. The winner of the election only received 22 percent of the vote—much, much less than a majority, and hardly a stamp of approval from the electorate. The commissioners then created a task force to explore voting reforms. The task force settled on the possibility that approval voting might be right for Fargo, but the commission then ignored its recommendations for a year. So supporters of the change started a group called Reform Fargo, collected enough signatures, and got it on the ballot as Measure 1.

The timing was right for the center to help with the push. In 2017, the 501(c)(3) non-profit's revenues were dramatically boosted by a $600,000 grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. (By comparison, the center's total revenue the previous year was around $46,000.) So it's in a position to spend money helping undecided voters see the benefits of approval voting.

Hamlin says supporters of third-party and independent candidates should appreciate the system. In the 2016 presidential election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson got 3 percent of the vote and Green Party candidate Jill Stein got one percent. In a study examining the race as if it were an approval vote ballot, Johnson's support jumped to 21 percent and Stein's support rose to 12 percent, Hamlin says.

That's certainly not enough for either of them to win, but it's an example of how our method of voting games the system so heavily in favor of the two dominant parties. If Johnson had been treated all along as a candidate with support of 21 percent of the population, how would that have affected the amount of media coverage he received, not to mention participation in debates? Would the Democratic and Republican parties be so dismissive about his positions?

If Fargo's voters approve Measure 1, approval voting will be implemented for the next race for mayor and city commissioners. Hamlin says the education campaign would continue to make sure voters know how the new system works, and he hopes it will encourage more people to run for office who would normally decline because they feel they have no chance of winning. He also hopes that people will be happier with their votes if they could support secondary candidates to send the frontrunners a message about where their priorities lie. Hamlin says other nearby communities in North Dakota are watching Fargo and may follow in its footsteps.

"There are very few instances where voters and citizens can't be ignored, and that's when they are voting," Hamlin says. "Right now we have a horrible tool for how we vote. This is upgrading that tool."

Edited to correct that Fargo is, in fact, in North Dakota.