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Do Tuesday's election results show a need for approval voting in Fargo?

Fargo City Hall, April 21, 2016. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — With both winners of the Fargo City Commission race receiving far less than a majority of the vote Tuesday, June 12, those pushing for election reforms have renewed calls for change.

Jed Limke, who's part of an effort to get approval voting on the November ballot, said it's not clear that the winners didn't deserve to win but it does seem several of their opponents were so similarly progressive they ended up splitting the vote.

"It makes it harder for them to win even if they're on popular platforms," he said. That would be less likely with approval voting in which voters can vote for as many candidates as they want without trying to guess which of the candidates they like have the best chance, he said.

Complete but unofficial results show that winners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn, both conservative incumbents, received 18 percent and 17 percent of the vote, respectively, for a total of 35 percent. If joined by supporters of Tim Flakoll, a former Republican state senator, conservative voters mustered 48 percent.

The candidates that Limke said were similarly progressive — Linda Boyd, Arlette Preston, Mike Williams and Liz Maddock-Johnson — together had 50 percent of the vote. The remaining candidates received less than 2 percent of the vote.

Limke cautioned that there's no way to know the minds of voters and it's possible many didn't follow the traditional conservative-progressive split or didn't see the candidates in the same way.

Gehrig and Piepkorn accused approval-voting supporters of trying to change the rules because they didn't like the outcome. They pointed to a Wednesday letter to the editor in support of approval voting written by Jacob P. Scott, a self-identified member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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Limke said his petition committee includes conservative people such as Marty Riske, who ran for governor as a Libertarian in 2016. Knocking on doors, Limke said he's received a lot of support from voters across the political spectrum, including those with Gehrig yard signs.

Currently, voters pick as many candidates on the ballot as there are open seats; this is called "plurality voting." On Tuesday, they could vote for two of nine candidates. Progressive voters would have to guess which of the four progressive candidates had the best chance, to avoid diluting their votes. Voters might even avoid the candidate they like the most because she was perceived to have less support.

That sort of "strategic voting" wouldn't be necessary with approval voting, Limke said.

Under the proposed system, progressive voters could pick all four and conservatives could pick their three candidates and those with the most votes at the end of the night win, he said. "That excites people because they remember instances where they voted where they had to make that choice," he said.

The idea emerged from a task force the City Commission formed after the 2016 election when the winners also received less than a majority. Tony Grindberg and John Strand got a combined 31 percent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates.

Both Gehrig and Piepkorn said they'd be OK with approval voting if voters approved it, but they warned it carries a lot of risk having not been tried in any U.S. election.

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"My main concern is integrity," Piepkorn said. "Our voting system, that's one of the linchpins to our country."

Gehrig said approval voting lends itself to fraud because it's less clear how many people actually voted. He and Piepkorn said they much prefer the "one person, one vote" system.

However, on Tuesday, each Fargo voter could vote a maximum of two times for City Commission candidates, three times for park commissioners and five times for school board members. It's possible some voted for less than the maximum because they only liked a few candidates, making it hard to know from the vote total how many actually cast ballots.

Gehrig said that's true but it's not desirable and approval voting would be more chaotic.

For now, it's not certain that approval voting will get on the November ballot. Its proponents need to gather 2,170 signatures by the first week of August.

Limke said they're not there yet, but he expects they will be by the deadline.

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Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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