The Delights of Instant Runoff Voting, Plus Minimum Wage Debate: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/10/14

The Duluth City Council kicked off its business two hours early on Monday night, as it sought to fill the 2nd District seat vacated by Patrick Boyle, now of the St. Louis County Board. The Council had narrowed a field of ten applicants down to three, and brought those three before them for a second interview. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, oversaw the proceedings.

The three finalists were Ms. Kathy Heltzer, Ms. Angie Miller, and Mr. Joel Sipress. The results from the first round suggested it would be a tight race, with three first-place votes for Ms. Heltzer and Mr. Sipress, plus one for Ms. Miller, who is probably the best-known of the group; she recently completed a four-month interim term on the County Board in the stead of her late husband, Steve O’Neil. All three appeared reliably liberal, which—worries about Council uniformity aside—seemed in keeping with the intentions of the voters of District 2, who had re-elected the unopposed liberal Councilor Boyle last November.

The process was messy from the start, as the Councilors invited the three candidates up to the table to take a few questions. Four Councilors asked questions relating to the role of councilors, dealing with land use disputes, availability to constituents, and the most pressing issue facing the city (along with a solution). Instead of asking the candidates the same questions at once and rotating the person to first take the questions, they asked each individual all four questions in succession. Predictably, the first candidate to answer, Ms. Miller, was somewhat vague and stumbled through the questions, while Mr. Sipress, who went last, had plenty of time to think up precise answers and build off of what the first two had said. He was exacting and meticulous, citing the city charter in his responses on Councilor roles, and did not dither with multiple issues facing the city as the other two did. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the appeal in Ms. Heltzer, who also had very clear and sensible answers, and all three appeared thoroughly competent and had fairly similar answers. It appeared the vote would come down to the two who hadn’t supported Sipress or Heltzer in the first round, Councilors Fosle and Julsrud.

Without bothering to explain their choices, the Councilors went into the voting. The City Clerk, Mr. Cox claimed the form was “a little zealous” with its many columns for votes, but in the end, the form was rather sensible. The first vote failed to achieve a 5-vote majority, with 4 votes for Sipress (Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson), 3 for Heltzer (Krug, Larson, Russ), and 1 for Miller (Julsrud). And so there was a second round, in which Councilor Julsrud switched her vote to Heltzer, leaving the Council deadlocked.

The Council then proceeded through two more rounds of voting, but no one blinked. It was a tedious process, with the Councilors finding humorous ways to fill the time as Mr. Cox tabulated the votes. Councilor Hanson told a bad joke, while President Krug plugged a few press conferences she’d attended; the Olympics got a mention, as did the anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, which had Councilor Russ reminiscing on the time she went to see them in Milwaukee in 1964, when she was 14. (She couldn’t hear a thing.) Councilor Garnder had everyone running for cover when she threatened to give a history of the councilor appointment process.

With no decision in four rounds of simple majority vote, the Council moved to an instant runoff vote (IRV; also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV). This is a process in which voters rank candidates in accordance to their preference; the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and people who voted for that person have their votes transferred to their second choice, and so on until the process produces a winner with the majority. The immediate question is why the Council didn’t just use IRV to begin with; the first round would have produced the same result as a majority vote, and would have spared us several rounds of electoral games of chicken. Moreover, now that the Councilors had been through four rounds of voting and knew where everyone else stood, they predictably voted strategically, as everyone who ranked all three put their top choice at #1, Ms. Miller at #2, and the other contender tied for first at #3. Once again, Sipress and Heltzer each had 4 votes. Of course, this could have happened had they done IRV at the start of the process (as I think would have been more logical–why use it only as a backup?), but there’s at least a chance that the second-place votes might have been a bit less strategic and more reflective of the actual order in each person’s mind. (Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt that every single one of them thought Miller should have been #2.)

But wait! There was more confusion. Despite Mr. Cox’s insistence that everyone should rank all three, not everyone did: Councilors Fosle, Hanson, and Julsrud only ranked their top choice, and left the rest of their ballots blank. This meant that Sipress had three third-place votes, while Heltzer only had two. There was some confusion over whether this apparent technicality really could swing the vote, so Mr. Cox and Attorney Johnson retreated to a back office and called an IRV expert at Fair Vote Minnesota for a ruling. (This is where I slip in my obnoxiously pompous comment to say that there was someone in the room who learned the details of IRV as a political science undergrad and knew what the correct interpretation was, but I suppose I’m not exactly qualified to issue a ruling on this sort of thing.)

At this point, President Krug suspended the special meeting so that the poor men from the steam plant, patiently waiting in back, could come forward for their Committee of the Whole report. The Council plowed straight on into the regular meeting, and was halfway through the citizen speakers when Mr. Cox finally emerged with a verdict: Mr. Sipress’s extra third-place vote was enough to get him the last spot on the Council. (Under standard IRV this is not correct…see the follow-up posts for more.) He took his oath and assumed Councilor Boyle’s empty seat.

Despite the bizarre tiebreaker, no one protested much; everyone just seemed relieved to arrive at a resolution. Councilor Hanson was all for violating the charter and having a special election to fill the seat; Councilor Gardner told him they couldn’t do that, and worried it might come to a coin toss at one point. This idea repulsed President Krug, though there was consensus that, after two straight messy Council appointments, a change to the city charter appears necessary. In a case such as this one, with nearly two full years until the next Council election, a special election seems by far the most sensible choice; as frustrating as it may be to constituents, in short-term cases such as the one this past fall, it may make more sense just to leave seats vacant. This is one case in which the stakes are high enough that no process at all may be better than a bad process. At any rate, this process did—stumblingly, haltingly—deliver the candidate I considered most qualified, based on the brief interview I saw.


The meeting itself breezed by. Among the citizen speakers, Ms. Alison Clark was back to again demand the construction of the Lakewalk around Beacon Pointe, while a man told a long story of bureaucratic red tape surrounding his fire-damaged home, which Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery offered to look into, if only to find some resolution. Former Councilor Boyle came forward to reflect a bit on his four-plus years on the Council, talked about how far the city had come since 2009, and offered continued support from his new position across the way in the St. Louis County Building.

The only issue on the agenda to generate any debate at all was a resolution supporting a statewide push to raise the minimum wage. There were single speakers for and against the resolution, and Councilor Gardner mustered a reply to the critic of the measure. She cited polls suggesting 70 percent support for an increase and explained that giving poor people money was a sure way to get the money back into the economy, as they’d spend it on fairly basic needs. She noted that wages have been stagnant despite increased productivity over the past thirty years, and said the measure was important despite its symbolic nature, as it started a conversation and showed the Council’s priorities. Most of the rest of the Council, flexing its liberal muscles, repeated her points, with a few additions: Councilor Larson explained that the proposal would index the minimum wage to inflation so as to prevent drastic shifts, and Councilor Sipress suggested that higher a minimum wage would help taxpayers, as it would lessen stress on government safety nets.

As expected, Councilor Fosle was the lone dissenter; he proudly claimed the conservative mantel and worried that the measure would backfire, and have an especially heavy effect on people on fixed income who might not be getting more money relative to inflation. Councilor Gardner countered this claim, saying people on fixed income have seen more adjustments for inflation over the past 30 years than people working minimum wage jobs. After President Krug’s endorsement of the resolution as a judicious use of symbolic resolutions, it passed, 8-1. The Council wrapped up its business with a few minor ordinances that passed unanimously, and everyone welcomed Councilor Sipress to the fold. He will, hopefully, be the last Duluth City Councilor appointed by his peers, and not chosen by voters.


5 thoughts on “The Delights of Instant Runoff Voting, Plus Minimum Wage Debate: Duluth City Council Notes, 2/10/14

  1. Just want to say that this is a brilliant narrative for just another night down at city hall. Great read (quotes would do wonders though). I look forward to reading more!

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