Two Last 2015 Duluth Election Maps

By popular demand, here’s a quick follow-up to my last post with two more maps: one on the ranked-choice voting ballot initiative, and another on the Lakeside liquor law.

Nonbinding Vote to Repeal the Lakeside Liquor Ban


The entire city, for some reason, got a say on whether the Lakeside neighborhood should sell alcohol or not. The initiative had more than 50 percent support in every precinct, but the four precincts that represent Lakeside had the four lowest percentages of people in support. While a narrow majority supported liquor sales in three of the four, and a somewhat larger percentage did so in a fourth, opinion remains divided. The west side, meanwhile, really supports booze on the far east end. The results in Lakeside had a 3 percent shift toward the pro-alcohol side since the 2008 referendum, so things are starting to move, but it’s hardly a mandate from the people of Lakeside.

Cards on the table: I vote absentee in Precinct One (the far east part of Lakeside) and support opening up the neighborhood to liquor sales. However, given this shifting but still divided electorate, I think a compromise is in order. The city already bent the rules once for the area to allow liquor sales at the Lester Park Golf Course clubhouse, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do the same for New London Café or any other restaurants that may pop up in the neighborhood, if they so desire. That could even pump some life into the neighborhood’s little downtown. If they want to continue to block liquor stores until there’s broader support, I think that would be a reasonable accommodation of public opinion. Of course, there are arguments that cast aside public opinion in favor of ideals, but this is probably the best way to find some middle ground.

Ranked Choice Voting


First off, there’s one very clear outlier. RCV had majority approval in the precinct that covers the UMD campus; it didn’t get over 36 percent of the vote anywhere else. To the extent that many UMD students vote from their on-campus address, they tend to be mobilized by student groups or activist organizations, so their support makes some sense. That precinct also had the smallest number of votes of any precinct—less than one-third the average, and one-fifth that of some the largest—making it more vulnerable to swings related to sample size. It could be interesting to see an age breakdown, though I’d add that an informal sampling of my own peer group (mid-20s people) revealed widespread skepticism. I’d guess this is a localized result, and little more.

The other four precincts that mustered over 30 percent support for RCV are on the near east side, and in areas with fairly high poverty rates. While this is still a pretty decisive rejection, the somewhat higher approval rate here might stem from the (highly questionable) claim that the voting system somehow increases the number of diverse voices. Basically everyone else rejected it by a very large margin, and I don’t think one can read much into an east-west narrative here. The unease with it cut across all parts of the city and demographic groups. It’s time to find some methods to increase citizen participation with broader support, even if they may take more work within the community.

That’s all I’ve got for this election cycle. I’ll have some final words on the outgoing politicians when their terms come to an end in January, and we’ll see how the newcomers do when they make their way into office.


Duluth General Election Results and Comments, 2015

Another election season has come and gone. Your results, with percentages followed by actual vote totals:

Duluth Mayor

Emily Larson 71.9 (15,352)

Chuck Horton 27.5 (5,862)

It’s a long-anticipated coronation, as Larson rolls into office. She’s basically been inevitable since most of the realistic challengers stood down early in the election cycle, and now she finally gets to move toward governance. Her policies will likely be a continuation of those of her predecessor, Don Ness; under Larson, Duluth should continue its re-invention as a creative, energetic city. Still, she’ll certainly have an opportunity to carve out her own legacy outside of Ness’s long shadow, and we’ll see what innovative ideas she brings forward, and how she looks to manage those who aren’t all on board with the Ness agenda. She is Duluth’s first female mayor.

City Council District One

Gary Anderson 61.9 (3,902)

Karl Spring 37.9 (2,389)

No great surprise here, as the far east side elects the more liberal candidate to replace Jennifer Julsrud.

City Council District Two

Joel Sipress (I) 97.5 (2,891)

After an unopposed run, Sipress returns to a council where he is suddenly among the more senior members. First appointed in 2014 after Patrick Boyle was elected to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, he now gets a full four-year term.

City Council District Three

Em Westerlund 82.4 (2,278)

Barri Love (withdrew from race) 16.8 (465)

Love’s withdrawal left Westerlund with no competition in this race to replace Sharla Gardner in the center of the city.

City Council District Five

Jay Fosle (I) 56.4 (2,215)

Janet Kennedy 43.4 (1,705)

The far west side of the city retains its contrarian streak and returns Fosle, a frequent skeptic of the Ness governing consensus, for a third term. Kennedy made up some ground on her primary gap, but ultimately failed to break through. Fosle is usually left playing the grumbling protest vote, though I definitely give him credit for occasional independent streak that produces some insights and occasionally highlights some perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise get a seat at the table. He is now the most senior member of the council.

City Council At-Large (Two open seats)

Elissa Hansen 37.8 (12,192)

Noah Hobbs 28.8 (9,271)

Jim Booth 21.5 (6,922)

Kris Osbakken 11.5 (3,699)

This script looks just like the one two years ago, as the two DFL candidates move through, leaving a conservative in third and a local Green Party figure in fourth. Hansen, a dynamic candidate with a background in economic development, was a shoo-in from the start. Hobbs, a younger guy with a lot of passion for the west side, should provide an interesting voice in coming debates over the future of that side of the city. The other two were always long shots.

City Council Big Picture: The Council’s ideological composition didn’t shift at all, as the lone conservative incumbent retained his seat and moderate liberals cleaned up everywhere else. There is on notable shift, though: there’s a youth movement afoot. Three of the nine councilors are now under thirty, and a fourth is in her thirties. In Don Ness’s wake there has been a generational shift in this city, and there’s a lot of young energy making its move into city politics. Do my generation proud, kids.

School Board District Two

David Kirby 59.7 (2,776)

Charles Obije 40.0 (1,857)

Kirby’s big lead from the primary carried through to the general election, and it’s little surprise to see him cruise through in a wealthy district that values its public education. He succeeds the polarizing Judy Seliga-Punyko, and he now gets to negotiate the school board minefield: is his positive talk a genuine desire to move forward from all this past junk, or will he follow his predecessor in staking out the battle lines? I thought Obije appeared a strong candidate, and hope he remains involved in some capacity.

School Board District Three

Nora Sandstad 64.2 (3,111)

Loren Martell 35.2 (1,705)

This makes three elections and three decisive losses for Martell; I thought he had a chance this time around, given his exposure through Reader columns and a more forgiving district. Instead, Sandstad carried the day. Like Kirby, she’s largely kept mum on big issues and said all the right things about staying positive and moving past recent ugliness; the big question now is how her apparent independence will play out in practice.

School Board At-Large

Alanna Oswald 51.5 (9,621)

Renee Van Nett 47.6 (8,910)

The tightest race of the evening also involved its biggest shift from the primary, as Oswald came back from an early deficit to ease past Van Nett. She was probably the most dynamic campaigner of the bunch, and if she can bring this energy to the board, it will be a very different place. If she can retain her independence, she’ll be a force. I also hope Van Nett continues her advocacy in key areas even though she’s not on the board.

School Board Big Picture: It’s a potential changing of the guard in ISD 709, as three consistent votes in the monolithically pro-administration bloc retire and three fairly new faces in Duluth school debates make their way in. Unlike some of the current and outgoing members, they don’t have long records siding with one side of the dead horse Red Plan debates. With two solid pro-administration votes and two staunch critics among the remaining members, these three now have the power to play kingmaker. Whatever they decide, one hopes they will stay above past squabbles, ask tough questions, and dig into the district’s most pressing debates. Color me cautiously optimistic that some new blood will leave the old debates behind and provide a much-needed jolt of energy for the real issues at stake.

Ranked Choice Voting Ballot Question

No 74.7 (15,564)

Yes 25.3 (5,271)

Mission accomplished.

My own opinions aside, this was quite the decisive vote. It shows how a campaign with considerable outside financial backing can fall to a largely grassroots local campaign (though Walter Mondale did weigh in on the ‘no’ side in the final week). It’s also distinctly Duluth, as the city chose not to follow in lockstep with the trend in the Twin Cities. Duluth elections will be a bit simpler for it, and perhaps we’ve finally heard the last of this well-intentioned but poorly supported and ultimately misguided attempt to “improve” democracy. Back to the real issues.

Non-Binding Lakeside Liquor Ban Repeal

Yes 59.3 (11,528)

No 40.7 (7,912)

This was, weirdly, a city-wide question, and the rest of the city had stronger opinions than the Lakeside residents did. Even so, opinion in Lakeside has shifted some since the 2008 referendum on this topic; at that point, it fell one vote short, while the DNT is now reporting the repeal got about 53 percent of the vote. Before I die, I will be able to buy a damn beer in my childhood neighborhood. (No, the 3.2 Coors at Super One does not count.)

Method of Setting City Council Pay Ballot Question

Yes 67.0 (14,031)

No 33.0 (6,917)

This procedural move lets the Charter Commission set council pay, which seems a bit wiser than letting them just vote on it themselves. Any new pay grade will still require Council approval. We’ll see if anything actually comes of this and revisit it if and when that debate starts up.

Time-permitting, I’ll be back with some comments on precinct-by-precinct results in the near future. Stay tuned.

Ranked Choice Voting Is Still Mostly Useless

Duluth has some elections next week, and while I’ve handicapped most of the races at one point or another and don’t have many new things to say about them, I will spend some time on the topic that seems to generate the most debate in the social media world. That topic is…ranked choice voting (RCV). (In past posts I’ve used its other name, IRV, but I’ll use RCV this time since that’s the language on the ballot.) I went into greater depth on its flaws in this past post, and would point anyone interested in learning about RCV in that direction.

First, let’s clear up one misconception particular to the Duluth case: the initiative on the ballot, as currently proposed, will not eliminate those “costly” primary elections in Duluth. It covers only mayoral and city council elections, so the city will still need to roll out the whole show for the school board and anything else requiring a primary. Not only will there be no cost savings, it simply passes the costs off on a cash-strapped school board.

Otherwise, I’ll just point out that all of the claims for it are questionable at best. For every warm and fuzzy Minneapolis IRV election (which had lower turnout anyway), there are frustrations in Oakland. For every claim of empowerment of minorities, there’s a study pointing out that their ballots are more likely to be spoiled. For every San Francisco election (which invariably elects a popular liberal candidate, no matter what), there is another lawsuit and attempt to amend the system. Supporters and opponents can argue turnout numbers for all eternity.

It is most important to judge RCV not by its performance in obvious elections (as was the case in Minneapolis last time around), but by its performance in close ones. Here, things grow much murkier, with (right or wrong) questions of legitimacy and moves to repeal. Once RCV becomes an issue, the controversy never goes away. Just ask the one-third of U.S. municipalities that have repealed it after adoption. Is this really a debate we want to keep having every four years? Or maybe, just maybe, there are more pressing political questions to which we should devote our time and money.

Finally, there’s a claim circulating that the elected officials in Duluth who have come out against it are all just maintaining current power structures because they work for them. This is absurd. First off, most of the politicians who oppose RCV in Duluth won their elections comfortably, and would be in office with any voting method. (The lone exception, perhaps, is Don Ness, who could well have lost out in a crowded 2007 field that he did not lead after the primary.) Also, basically everyone who has come out against it for more than the most basic reasons is doing so because they were educated by a group of concerned UMD professors. (This includes me.) These professors are not politicians, and have nothing to gain personally from their campaign. They went in curious about RCV, learned more than anyone else, and came away unimpressed. Ever since, they’ve been doing their civic duty to inform anyone who will listen. This is the way local politics should work.

The only side in this election using any distinctive political muscle is the “yes” campaign, which is driven by the Twin Cities-based branch of Fair Vote Minnesota, a national organization whose ubiquity in these debates makes it hard to find any neutral voices in popular media. (Just google the term and see how many of the results include comments from Fair Vote or one if its proxies.) Naturally, they’d reject the label of an outside interest group, but that is just what they are here, as they spend a heap of money in a city they do not live in to influence an election. It’s all rather funny: I suspect most of the Fair Vote people are strong proponents of campaign finance reform and keeping big, distant, moneyed interests out of politics, and yet…here they are.

I’m sure the people of Fair Vote think they’re promoting democracy and doing the right thing, despite what the evidence might say. Their civic interest is admirable. Far less admirable is the missionary zeal with which they pitch their cause. The shrill tenor of the debate and dismissal of critics as simpletons or bigots is especially ironic, given the claim that RCV is supposed to reduce negativity in campaigns.  Somehow, RCV has become part of a religious cause; one that is incapable of self-reflection and above any criticism, and considers the cause more important than the deliberative democratic process it needs to go through to become reality. If only it were actually a cause worth fighting for.

Duluth Election Filing Deadline Notes, 2015

Hey, Duluth! It’s been a while. I see your filing deadline for this fall’s municipal elections has come and gone, so it’s time to see who’s looking to shape the city for the next four years.


We’ll start at the top, which also looks to be the most predictable of all the races so far. Emily Larson has all the inevitability of Hillary Clinton and none of the baggage that makes Clinton unlikable, and it would be a shock not to see her as the next mayor of Duluth. One by one, the people who could have given Don Ness’s heir apparent a run declared their intent to stay out of the race, and the unfailingly positive Larson hasn’t missed a beat.

She does have seven opponents, though, and the field will need to be winnowed down in a September primary. The most intriguing is probably Chuck Horton, the boxing gym owner; agree or disagree with his nonpartisan populism, he has a very distinct take, and some articulate thoughts flowing on his website. The scourge of drugs seems to be the theme of his campaign, while Thomas Cooper also looks to be draw attention toward a clear cause, the plight of disabled Duluthians. John Socha, who ran in 2007 and aims to continue Ness’ policies, is also in the race. John Howard Evans, Robert Schieve, and James Mattson need to tell us a bit more about themselves. Last, there’s Howie Hanson, the Fourth District Councilor who has yo-yoed in and out of the race over the past year. Howie has kept a fairly low profile since re-entering the race, and his positions remain fairly cloudy. Still, he has enough name recognition that he might sneak through into the general election.

The real question in this race is whether someone can offer a genuine policy alternative that might convince others that Larson isn’t the only realistic option. I don’t see it happening, but one never knows. The good news is that the large field indicates some good civic life in Duluth, and even if they don’t win, some of the other candidates might shed some much-needed light on certain issues.

City Council

It’s a busy election year for the Council, with six of the nine seats up for grabs, including four of the five seats based on geographic districts. One of those, however, is not really a race: Second District Councilor Joel Sipress is unopposed, and will win himself a full four-year term after his two-year appointment to a vacancy. In the early going, it’s hard to separate many of the candidates; most say nice things about the Ness Administration, and suggest mild tweaks here and there. It goes to show how powerful Duluth’s political consensus has become

Two other races involve two candidates, meaning there’s no need for a primary. Gary Anderson will clash with former weatherman Karl Spring in the First District in a race to replace Jennifer Julsrud, whose retirement after one term took me by surprise. Spring has a recognizable name, but my only knowledge of his politics is a recollection of a global warming-denying rant a few years back; Anderson, meanwhile, appears the more likely heir to Julsrud’s left-leaning mantel. In the Third District, Em Westerlund and Barri Love will go at it to replace longtime Councilor Sharla Gardner. Both appear pretty progressive, and will have to differentiate themselves somehow in the coming months.

The most interesting race might be in the Fifth District, where two-term Councilor Jay Fosle faces three opponents in his re-election bid. Fosle has become a Council institution with his populist defenses of fiscal conservatism and some groups who normally don’t get much attention, but he’s also the most obvious target for the Duluth DFL. The DFL-endorsed candidate is Janet Kennedy, who is upbeat and has long been active in the community. It’s hard to find much on other two candidates, Allan Beaulier and Derrick Ellis; assuming it comes down to Fosle and Kennedy, it could be a compelling race.

The at-large field has four candidates fighting for two spots, so there won’t be a primary here. Elissa Hansen—disclaimer: briefly, a former colleague of mine—is an upbeat younger person who follows in the Ness-Larson mold, will likely ride to a spot on the Council. Two of the others are recognizable names. Jim Booth, a losing candidate for the County Board in the past, is the most conservative option of the four; Kriss Osbakken, meanwhile, ran on the Green Party ticket for House seat 7A last fall. The wild card here is Noah Hobbs, a young west-sider who’s very active in the community. One might say he’s looking to ride the Zack Filipovich formula of relentless campaigning energy to the Council.

School Board

Three of the ISD 709 seats are on the ballot this fall, and here, there is actually a race for control of the agenda. Three members of the five-person majority bloc that has called all the shots and tried to remove Art Johnston this past year are retiring, and the longtime minority senses an opportunity for a changing of the guard. Jane Hammerstrom Hoffman, David Kirby, and Charles Obije will require the only ISD 709 race primary to whittle the field down to two.

They’re probably least likely to make any inroads with the Second District seat currently held by Judy Seliga-Punyko. This district represents the wealthiest parts of Duluth, and the people most likely to shell out whatever funds necessary to give their kids a good education.

A real race to watch will take place in the Third District, where Nora Sandstad squares off against longtime Board critic Loren Martell. I’ve picked on Martell on here before, but of late he’s been increasingly coherent. Many of his concerns are genuine. The question is whether he can present himself as a visible champion of his cause, and shake off some of the baggage of his past involvement, which, right or wrong, is very real. Samstad, meanwhile, seems to be digging deep in her early investigations and asking all the right questions without taking sides yet. As a west side resident with young kids, she knows what’s at stake here.

The at-large race, meanwhile, involves some relative unknowns. Jim Unden, Renee Van Nett, and Alanna Oswald all have kids in west side schools, and have deep roots here. (This is Unden’s second run; his first was a mere 36 years ago.) Like Samstad, they seem frustrated with the pettiness of the current Board, know the problems the city faces, and are (for now, at least) trying to hold the high ground, with Oswald being the most pointed of the three so far. We’ll see how they distinguish themselves down the stretch, and will also require a primary.

The new board will include two more west-siders frustrated with the status quo, which could shake things up. Excepting Martell, however, it’s unclear if any of them would become immediate allies of Johnston and Harry Welty. They certainly should do a better job of listening to them than the current Board, but they would do well to stay above that squabble for as long as is humanly possible. It’s definitely time for an overhaul, but if it just turns into a fight for retribution or I-told-you-so or cleared names, who does that help? Not the students, that’s for sure.

Hey Kids, Instant Runoff Voting Is Back!

File this one under “oh no, not this again.” A year after the Duluth City Council made a hash of using instant runoff voting (IRV; also known as ranked choice voting, or RCV) and subsequently voted down a move to put it on the ballot in a laughably over-the-top hearing, a group of committed citizens have gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot. With just 50 percent of the vote, it will come to pass in Duluth.

I’m not being very subtle here, but my reaction is informed by serious investigation, not just a gut reaction to Duluth’s stumbles with a system that works without all the drama in other places. I came into the 2014 debates neutral, but subsequently got an education from some UMD professors in the realities of IRV in practice. To date, IRV’s supporters have deployed a bunch of canards about “inclusion” and “diversity” and “democracy” and give some anecdotal evidence about its success. The evidence in support of IRV ends there. The cold, hard data reveals a system that only ends up entrenching two-party rule and leads to occasional costly debacles. Cities then wind up making incessant tweaks to their system or abandon the experiment altogether. There’s never any attempt to respond to the more nuanced critiques either, except perhaps with some character assassination. The cool kids in Minneapolis have lapped this up, so Duluth must now jump on the bandwagon, and if we fail, we are a retrogressive city that obviously doesn’t care about representation. Spare me.

IRV, if it comes to pass, probably won’t be a disaster. It just won’t change much, either. It is a waste of time and energy for activists who should direct their time and money to much greater issues afflicting Duluth and the country at large. Trying to fix American democracy with IRV is like trying to fix a sinking ocean liner with some duct tape. Look at the bigger picture.

That’s all for now; I’ll check back in as we approach the primaries and the general election, once we get a better idea of who a lot of these people are.

Instant Runoff Voting and its Discontents

Instant runoff voting (here abbreviated IRV, and also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV) offers what seems, at least, to be a plausible alternative to our current electoral system. It has become a popular cause, particularly in progressive circles, where people see election methods as reinforcing existing power structures. It comes as little surprise, then, to see the IRV debate resurface in Duluth this year: first, when the city council failed to use it properly in an attempt to fill a vacant council seat, and later, when it voted down a proposal to explore its implementation in local elections. I’m also about to head down and spend two years in Minneapolis, a city that has adopted it, so I’ll be curious to see what it looks like from the inside, and hear from people with direct experience. For now, though, I’ll lay out why I remain a skeptic. While I certainly don’t think the system we have is great, I don’t see any dramatic benefits from a change.

Thanks to fortuitous seating arrangements at the council discussion on IRV, I got myself a solid crash course in election algorithms and the critiques of IRV over the past month and a half. My guide throughout was UMD professor emerita Kathryn Lenz Peckham, who was joined by Prof. Barry James and instructor Rachel Breckenridge, all of the math and statistics department, at our final meeting. (Full disclosure: Prof. Lenz’s son was a high school friend of mine.) My teachers obviously had clear issues with IRV, but they’d been genuinely curious when they first heard about its application for political elections, and came at it with the detached, academic curiosity that I appreciate.

Most elections in the U.S. use a system known as plurality voting: each voter casts one vote and  the candidate with the most votes wins, sometimes with the help of a plurality primary in which the top two candidates advance to a general election run-off. IRV dispenses with the primary, asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, and conducts an instant runoff. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and that candidate’s supporters’ second-place votes are then counted. This process continues until someone clears the 50% bar.

The most immediate critique of IRV is its confusion: it’s different, and requires a bit more thought than just casting a vote for one’s favorite candidate. IRV defenders, however, can mount a strong case in response, relying on good voter education. The evidence on voter turnout and understanding of the method is a bit mixed, though it isn’t completely damning, either. The statisticians’ greatest concerns were not really with the act of voting itself, but the manner in which those votes are counted.

One of their greatest concerns was the possibility of a tie. With so many rounds, IRV greatly enhances the possibility of a tie; there could be an election-determining statistical tie at each round.  A tie at any round could potentially be enough to trigger a recount or other such election intrigue as the order in which candidates are eliminated affects the way second- and third-place votes come into play, and could theoretically lead to a completely different result.

Transparency in reporting election results is also difficult. Since IRV elections often feature 10 or more candidates, it is practically impossible to publish a ballots table that lays out the rank-order voting data. With just 5 candidates, there are 85 distinct ways in which ballots could be marked; with 10, there would be 820. This creates challenges for accurate reporting and analysis, and data from each precinct in the voting district would have to be aggregated before the runoff process can begin.

This makes things very hard to track, and has led to delays in the counting of ballots in some cases. Even if unjustified, people may grow more suspicious of such complex procedures. This all says nothing of the fact that most standard vote-counting machines are not designed to handle IRV ballots. This would probably be a one-time cost, but it can still be substantial—Minneapolis’s first IRV election ran significantly over budget—and the machines would require new software if election officials continue to tweak the parameters, as has happened in numerous situations.

There are a few other claims by IRV advocates that seem logical enough, but struggle under further scrutiny:

IRV always elects a majority winner. This is only true if one takes a rather contorted view of what constitutes a majority. In the Minneapolis election, Betsy Hodges, despite being the clear leader from start to finish, never actually got a majority of the votes. She only cleared the 50% threshold in the 33rd round of counting, when 15,573 people (19.6% of the electorate) had seen their ballots entirely eliminated from consideration. Her final IRV total was 38,870 votes—almost 10,000 more than she’d started with, but still less than 50% of the initial votes cast. And this was in an election that was not at all controversial.

Eliminating the primary reduces costs. Primary elections are not especially expensive, and cost savings in running elections would be counteracted by the amount of money candidates would need to spend to stay in the race all the way to election day. It just spreads the cost around to different places. Moreover, a longer election season inherently favors candidates with deeper pockets. Primaries have their shortcomings, but they also channel party funds toward the most popular internal candidate. Some in the IRV crowd have argued that this just means some of the candidates were never serious anyway, and that perhaps there should be higher barriers to entry, through fees or petition requirements. This seems a rather curious way to go about making things “more democratic.”

Primary elections certainly have their issues, with small turnout and extra emphasis of activist fringe groups, though there are plausible counterarguments to these points, as Councilor Julsrud explained when the Duluth city council considered IRV. If we are to replace it, though, we should make sure the new version is certifiably better.

IRV improves behavior and minimizes mudslinging. This may be true at first, as people figure out how IRV works. In the long run, however, it’s a probably a placebo effect, to the extent that it can even be measured. No one really campaigns to get second place votes; they’re in it to win. Voters learn to play along and still vote strategically. Cynicism is just a fact of life is modern electoral politics, and it will take a lot more than a new voting method to change that.

IRV empowers minorities and candidates from underrepresented groups. Australia’s experience with IRV does not bear this out; instead of empowering minority candidates, its two major parties are more rigid than ever. If you want do give minority groups more power, you probably should consider proportional representation, but that’s a debate for a different day. The only way this argument works is by relying on the contention that minority groups are less likely to vote in primaries or runoffs, but this does nothing to guarantee that such candidates will actually run.

IRV’s greatest troubles, however, tend to come when there are more than two serious candidates. A favorite example of this trouble is that of the Burlington, Vermont 2009 mayoral election, in which the winner of the election did not have the most votes in the first round, and when matched up against the other two major candidates head-to-head in a ballot table (a method used to determine the Condorcet winner, another measure of electoral effectiveness), he lost to both. But, thanks to the round structure of IRV, he won. Burlington voters, baffled, did away with IRV shortly thereafter. Several other cities have also dumped it, and its implementation never ends the debate: Minneapolis is discussing tweaks after its first run with IRV, and San Francisco seems to have a constant string of amendment and repeal attempts underway. IRV’s adoption often leads to a protracted struggle over voting methods when there are probably more pressing issues in front of local legislators.

IRV might work well to counteract cases in which a small minority candidate saps just enough support away from a major one to flip an election (see Ralph Nader and Al Gore, 2000), but once things become more complicated, it’s not much better than plurality, and perhaps even worse. Depending on who gets eliminated first, there are actually scenarios in which it makes more sense to vote up one’s least favorite candidate over one whom the voter might prefer.

IRV advocates will retort that many of the complicated scenarios don’t happen all that often, and therefore this is all nitpicking. We could say the exact same thing about plurality voting, though, and while there are merits to IRV, it ultimately seems like much ado about very little. It also probably just distracts from some of the issues its proponents are probably most passionate about, such as voter turnout (where it cannot match the impact of a serious get-out-to-vote campaign) and money in politics (where voting methods are ants compared to the Citizens United gorilla). It seems an odd battle to choose.

Is there a better voting method? Perhaps, the professors tentatively suggested: score voting. In simple score voting, voters simply vote “yes” or “no” on every single candidate on the ballot. They can vote for everyone, no one, or any combination of them all. More complex forms allow voters to score each candidate on a scale of zero to four or five (or conceivably any number). The idea here is that the candidate with the broadest support would generate the most votes. It abandons the obsession with majority, which is increasingly difficult to come by in a pluralistic society with many candidates running for office, and settles for the broadest possible consensus. The method is compatible with standard voting machines, leaves a clear paper trail, and could work with or without a primary.

The main objection to score voting is that it appears to violate the “one person, one vote” principle, but this really isn’t the case: everyone gets one vote on every candidate, and a blank is equal to a zero. Every voter has the opportunity to cast judgment on each candidate one time. The algorithm is also mercifully easy, sparing us trouble with endless rounds and eliminations and ties. Just add the votes.

It also resonates with younger voters who are used to a world in which everything gets a rating on the internet. (While it’s obviously far too small a sample size to say anything definitive, Rachel Breckenridge’s Contemporary Mathematics classes—Math 1024, a non-major math course at UMD—named it their top choice after experimenting with several different voting methods.) Don’t expect to see it before the Duluth City Council anytime soon, though; that’s not how the professors want to push this through. They’re not in any rush to implement it, and think it ought to be tested on much smaller scales before a city goes ahead and imposes it, but it’s worth a shot somewhere. With some careful experimentation first, a new method would come across as being far less politically motivated, and might generate more organic support—hopefully from across the spectrum, and not just one wing of one political movement.

One last note: at the last meeting, we figured that the method the City Council used to elect Joel Sipress was, in fact, something akin to the Bucklin Vote, in which 2nd- and 3rd-place votes are added when no candidate receives a majority of 1st-place votes. (Under both plurality voting and IRV, the Council was deadlocked 4-4, and everyone who cast a 2nd-place vote gave it to the third candidate who got zero first place votes. However, two of Sipress’s supporters did not fill in 2nd or 3rd choices, and the Council erroneously used this to give him the IRV victory.)  While doing some profound research on the Bucklin Vote (aka reading its Wikipedia page), I learned from the Minnesota Bar that Duluth actually experimented with the Bucklin Vote about a century ago, only to have it declared unconstitutional. As the Council’s experience showed, a variation on the Bucklin method applied to IRV could conceivably resolve some ties, though it does nothing to relieve the problems of transparency and paradoxical results that emerge in all ranked-ballot methods that use rounds. There is no quick and easy fix that will quiet all dissent and make IRV instantly palatable.

A Meeting of Epic Length: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/9/14

The Duluth City Council had a marathon for the ages on Monday night, enduring 4:20 of debate. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I won’t touch it.) There range of issues on the table ran the gamut, and in turn, there was a large, diverse crowd on hand to speak on many of the agenda items. For sanity’s sake I’m going to chop this post up by issue, rather than turn it into a dissertation; clarity will take priority over my aesthetic sensibilities so as to make sense of it all.

Introduction and Issues Inspiring Minimal Discussion

General community speakers included a Duluth East student announcing her presence and interest in more room for young people to participate in politics, a woman who worried about sinkholes, and a man with no apparent interest in being taken seriously. Councilor Fosle pulled a series of resolutions awarding parks grants and creating (or with the possibility of creating) new staffing positions so he could vote against them; they all passed, 8-1. There were no reports or updates on general issues of any significance, and nothing came off the consent agenda that hadn’t already been pulled.

Street Light Fees

First up was a plan to sunset the city’s unpopular street light fee, which had been tabled at the previous meeting. The resolution and related ordinance on the agenda aimed to phase out the fee by the end of 2018, but Councilor Fosle, the fee’s most vocal opponent, moved an amendment to slide that date up to 2015, repeating his stance that the fee constituted a double-tax. The amendment generated zero momentum; while Councilors Russ, Spiress, and Krug were sympathetic, they said the city couldn’t cut out that revenue so quickly without finding a replacement for lost revenue. The amendment failed, 1-8.

Supporters of the fee’s elimination then made their case. Councilor Gardner said the 2018 deadline was a long enough time frame to find an alternative, and Councilor Sipress explained his philosophical opposition to fees, which he called the “most unfair” type of tax. He later expressed support for a property tax increase to cover lost fee money, and several other Councilors signed on to that plan. Councilor Fosle did not, but he also joined the war against fees, reminding the audience of the time when Duluth made late night TV jokes for an aborted plan to impose a fee to fund fire departments and law enforcement.

Councilor Filipovich dissented, saying the discussion should be part of the annual budget process, and Councilor Larson worried about passing the burden off on future Councils and possible cuts to “quality of life services” such as libraries. The most vocal opposition, however, came from CAO Montgomery, who was as pointed as he has ever been. He was fine with the discussion, but said it should be part of the budget process, and that the lack of a funding plan ran counter to the “path to financial predictability and stability” that the administration has so desperately sought. A levy increase to cover the resultant shortfall “would not be modest,” and the city only had so much wiggle room in the amount it can levy while still covering everything else. President Krug agreed that it was “not responsible,” and thought the issue was being used to “teach a lesson on fees.”

Councilor Julsrud “completely disagree[d].” Fees, she insisted, are a “short-term fix,” not a long-term piece of the budget, and she said basic services should come through the levy. In the end, her logic prevailed by the narrowest of margins: the repeal of the fee passed 5-4, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, Julsrud, Russ, and Sipress making up the piecemeal coalition.

Street Repair Fees

The Council then moved from one fee to another and took up a proposed fee to pay for street repairs. There were nine citizen speakers on the topic, all opposed, though they came at it from different angles. Some, like Councilor Sipress in the previous exchange, claimed a fee was an unfair and regressive; others, such as Mr. Joe Kleiman, preferred a fee since it spread the burden, but opposed the heavier toll this particular fee would impose upon businesses. One speaker had issues with the process, and another suggested the city strong-arm the Fon Du Luth Casino into submission so as to regain its lost revenue.

Councilor Gardner then moved to introduce an amendment, which aimed to lessen the amount of double-taxing by limiting the assessment in the first year of the fee. There was much confusion over the language of the amendment, which led to an agonizingly long bureaucratic exchange, as amendments were made to the amendment and amendments made to the amendment to the amendment before all of the amendments were pulled and one clean one was put forward. Councilor Julsrud was its most vocal opponent, wondering about costs and saying it was only “a drop in the bucket” of the larger street picture. CAO Montgomery likewise grumbled about lost revenue, but while it would involve work, he said the amendment was “doable” when pressed by Councilor Filipovich. The amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson, and Krug in support. This change was substantial enough that the ordinance must be read before the Council again at the next meeting, so the attached resolution was thus tabled as well.

Spirit Mountain

In a brief but blunt discussion, Councilor Julsrud used a resolution aiming to increase Spirit Mountain’s line of credit to “crack the whip” on its management. She complained about all of the red ink in its financials and said that “weather can’t be a repeated excuse” for an institution that must necessarily deal with winter weather. Councilor Hanson read a letter from a constituent that took Spirit Mountain to task for its failure to make payments in recent years, and noted the drastic increase in its credit limit. CAO Montgomery tried to explain the situation some, citing the particularly harsh winter as a problem, and talked up the fiscal chops of Spirit’s incoming director. Everyone echoed each other a lot, Councilor Fosle suggested they give the new director some time before grilling her, and Councilor Hanson made several abuses of figurative language. The resolution passed unanimously.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

One might think that electoral systems would not be an issue that inspires heated manifestos and bitter divisions. One would be wrong.

First, Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment that altered the language of the resolution, toning down its explicit recommendation for adopting IRV and simply asking the charter commission to study it. It also removed a timeline that sought to fast-track the charter change for a November ballot initiative. The Councilors noted that the 60 day allowance for charter commission review would likely allow enough time to get the measure on the ballot this fall if approved, so Councilor Sipress’s amendment passed fairly easily. Only Councilor Fosle spoke against it, calling it a “safeguard for a flawed system.”

Eleven citizen speakers came forward on IRV. Seven, including five locals and two people from FairVote Minnesota, an IRV advocacy group, spoke in favor of its implementation. They claimed a wide array of benefits, including greater representation of underrepresented groups, the elimination of high-cost and low-turnout primaries, and relative simplicity once voters are educated. Several also pointed to the success of the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral elections, which they said had been “more civil” due to the need for candidates to court second choice votes.

Three UMD math and statistics professors also spoke on the issue, and gave a somewhat less rosy picture of IRV. They said that, despite the shiny packaging, IRV does not perform as well under scrutiny. They cited flaws in the algorithm that lead to “voter regret,” IRV’s tendency to lock in two-party systems, and data from several cities with more extensive experience than Minneapolis that had moved away from IRV. They recommended further discussion of possible alternatives and offered to further educate the public. (One has offered to meet with me, so there will be some follow-up on this in the not-so-distant future.) A final speaker in opposition (unaffiliated with the professors) worried about the fast pace of implementation and thought the elderly and disabled would struggle to make sense of IRV.

Despite the easy passage of Councilor Sipress’s amendment, several Councilors still had strong reservations about implementing IRV. (It took a while before Councilor Hanson brought it up, but it was clear that the Council’s flailing attempt to use IRV back in February was hanging over the debate.) Councilor Julsrud mounted a defense of the primary system, saying it used highly engaged citizens to weed candidates who are not serious, and that IRV’s large election fields tend to favor “big personalities.” She suggested any move to IRV should be made in conjunction with the school board and the county so as to avoid confusion. Councilor Filipovich said he became “more skeptical” the more he learned about IRV, and that there was a fundamental question of how people’s votes are counted at play. Several Councilors also disliked the process, saying it should come from citizen demand rather than from above, and that there was no demand for change or explanation of “why now.” (This strikes me as by far the weakest counterargument; there were clearly citizens in the room who supported IRV and were trying to get things moving, and this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a specific catalyst to get off the ground. If it’s properly vetted [an important ‘if’] and people approve, then go for it.)

Councilor Gardner took exception to these objections. If people really wanted to learn more, she said, they should send the recommendation on to the charter commission and let it do the work. This was their opportunity to learn more, she claimed, and it would be “closed-minded” to cut off the debate with a ‘no’ vote. Councilor Larson concurred, and insisted the conversation on IRV needed to continue.

As the debate went on, the Council’s professionalism went out the window. Councilor Fosle went into loose cannon mode, intimating that someone must be making money off the scheme to implement IRV; he also shot off about the number of speakers from Minneapolis, claiming he does not represent them. (Councilor Hanson repeated this; President Krug, an IRV champion, indignantly offered to provide addresses for all of the speakers.) Councilor Filipovich spoke far more pointedly that usual in opposition to IRV; while within the bounds of regular Council debate, President Krug tried to hurry him along, ostensibly because it was a long night and his comments weren’t all specific to the narrow intent of the resolution. Councilor Hanson continued to push her buttons with an attempt to ask questions, and while I agree that his debating style is often scattered, aimless and even grating at times (regardless of the issue), one got the clear sense that President Krug’s frustration with him had as much to do with his stance as with his method.

Councilor Hanson and President Krug traded barbs, with Hanson saying he felt like he was “being scolded by a schoolteacher,” Krug cutting him off, and Hanson saying this proved his point. The push for IRV failed 4-5, with support from Councilors Gardner, Krug, Larson, and Sipress. After the vote, President Krug topped everything off with a silly, grandstanding speech, saying “shame on you, Councilors,” for voting the proposal down, and that “you’ll have to sleep with that tonight.” Whatever the merits of a case, telling one’s colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves has got to be among the most counterproductive options available after one has lost a close vote. President Krug leads the Council with authority, and there is much to be said for that, but she has shown an occasional tendency to allow her opinions to color her leadership and use her presidency as a bully pulpit. Her outburst at the end only confirmed this sneaking suspicion. I think (and hope) this is just an unintentional display of passion, but no matter what, it is both obvious and painful to watch. There is enough blame to go around, though: the Council lost its sense of perspective on this one.

Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Landmark Status

It was past 10:30 by the time the Council started in on an ordinance that would preserve the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial as a heritage preservation landmark, but seven speakers stuck around to support granting it that status. They cited its role as a gathering site, its importance in soothing past wounds, and its stimulation of reflection. Mr. David Woodward of the Heritage Preservation Commission explained in detail how the memorial qualified due to its place in a historic district and symbolic value, despite its relative newness. Councilor Gardner was most struck by the comments of Mr. Roger Grégoire, who said he knew of no other memorial of this type in the world, and applauded Duluth’s “extraordinary” efforts to seek “redemption.” In a vintage display of Duluthianism, if there is such a thing, Councilor Gardner said the process to establish the memorial “just seemed very natural.” The ordinance passed unanimously.  (A special Patient Cycle Award goes to speaker Portia Johnson’s teenage son, who stayed by her side through the entire night without any signs of restlessness.)

Rockridge Zoning and Conclusion

The one last thing on the agenda of some note was the re-zoning of the former Rockridge Elementary site. Mr. Mark Irving, a neighbor, stuck out the entire night to thank all parties for their work in finding a solution for everyone. It passed unanimously and without debate, prompting a sigh and a laugh from Mr. Kerry Leider of the School District, who had waited it out in the chance that something did come up. After that, I was the only person left in the audience chamber, doodling deliriously as the Council plowed through a heap of unanimously approved ordinances. In the closing comments, there was one final back-and-forth on the handling of the IRV debate between Councilor Fosle and President Krug, with Fosle saying Robert’s Rules of Order had not been followed, Krug saying the Council has a precedent of not following them religiously, and Fosle concluding by saying, “but we don’t cut people off, either.” That did cut off the debate, though, and everyone headed for the exits in exhaustion.

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.