Rochester’s Charter Commission split 6-4 last week in deciding against holding a public hearing on ranked-choice voting next month.
Instead, the majority of commission members voiced a desire to continue discussing the topic. The commission is tasked with considering possible changes to the city charter, which governs many aspects of city operations.
Ranked-choice voting would be an alternative to current voting practices, which include primary elections to narrow the number of candidates for the general election.
With plans to continue the discussion, Charter Commission members highlighted a few questions that could be part of future meetings. Among them are:
1 Should the commission hold a public hearing?
Commission member Ray Schmitz asked for a public hearing to gather community input following successful ranked-choice elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul last year.
On Thursday, Leigh Johnson noted the commission hasn’t held a public hearing since he joined it in 1997.
Commission Vice Chairman Bob Haeussinger said he doesn’t believe a public hearing would provide the type of testimony the commission needs.
“No disrespect to the people who are going to be in the audience, they are not going to be in a position to answer some of the questions that we need to know about in terms of how we are going to do A, B, C, D and E,” he said, noting he’s not specifically opposed to ranked-choice voting but wants detailed input.
Schmitz said it would offer a glimpse at public opinion, which could be important if the measure is pushed to a public vote.
“Let’s let people tell us what they would like to see happen,” he said.
2 What’s the problem?
“I just don’t know where our problem is that we are trying to solve,” commission member Marcia Marcoux said.
For ranked-choice vote supporters, the option allows more candidates to be on the general election ballot, with voters selecting their top choice, as well as ranking the remaining candidates.
“Ranked-choice voting does give you the opportunity to vote for the person you really like, as well as the person you think needs to win,” Schmitz said, noting it means ballots aren’t “spoiled” when a vote is cast for a long shot candidate.
Additionally, he said low primary-election turnouts mean some voices are not heard when a candidate pool is narrowed.
For Haeussinger, however, the concept violates the idea of “one man, one vote.”
“When you go through a ranked-voting system, if you have a runoff, you’re actually implying that person is voting a second time,” he said, noting voters’ second and third selections can easily be used to determine a final outcome.
Additionally, opponents cite concerns about complicating the process.
3 Does it add partisanship to city elections?
The city charter requires that candidates for the city council and mayor be listed on the official ballot without reference to a political party.
Commission member Kellie Mueller raised concerns Thursday about sample ballots that she said were distributed by political organizations in 2016 with city candidates listed under party headings.
“When you only have two people in an election, it’s really easy to do that,” she said, noting that when more candidates are involved, it would likely dilute the impact of outside money in local elections.
Haeussinger said the city and charter commission can’t control unofficial practices.
“What you can do is regulate that (official) ballot, what it says, who’s in what process, what order they are on the ballot and those kind of things,” he said.
Several commission members said they believe third-party money would be a factor with or without a change in voting practices.
“Outside money has always been around,” said commission member John Eckerman. “It’s just ramped up recently.”
4 Would ranked-choice voting have candidate limits?
While the practice typically doesn’t limit the number of candidates on a ballot, commission member Stephanie Podulke noted Minneapolis raised its filing fee, which may have limited numbers.
Rochester City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead, who worked in the Minneapolis City Clerk’s office when the city implemented ranked-choice voting, said the city had 35 candidates for mayor in 2013 when the filing fee was $20.
The fee was raised to $500 for the 2017 election, which had 16 candidates.
“There is also the option for candidates to collect signatures,” Hollingshead said.
Such details, including the possibility of switching to odd-year elections, would likely be hammered out as the discussion continues.