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Nine months after task force suggested changes, some Fargo leaders seek vote on election reform

John Strand1 / 4
Tony Gehrig2 / 4
Tony Grindberg3 / 4
Tim Mahoney4 / 4

FARGO — Nine months have passed since a citizen task force recommended electoral reforms, and some city leaders say it's about time voters get a chance to weigh in.

"I think we owe them an answer," City Commissioner John Strand said. "People put a lot of work into that. We ask them to give us their advice. I believe we need to take it off the shelf and give them some sort of a decision."

He said he will ask the city attorney to draft the appropriate legal language for a ballot measure and ask the commission to weigh in perhaps within a month or two.

Mayor Tim Mahoney said he would back Strand on that since they've both heard the public ask for change. Other commissioners, though, say there's no rush because they've not heard the public clamoring for it.

The idea of reform got a lot of attention when the task force released its recommendations, Commissioner Tony Grindberg said, but he's heard "very little feedback" from residents. He said there's been other more pressing issues for the commission and he hasn't had time to give reforms much thought.

Strand and Grindberg became interested in reforms after winning their seats in 2016 with 15 and 16 percent of the vote, respectively. They were the top vote getters in a field of 11 candidates, but they wondered how much of a mandate they really had with so few votes.

Any public vote to reform elections would likely take place in June, when Fargo residents vote for mayor and two commissioners.

In August 2016, following the election, commissioners agreed to form a task force to find a way to ensure winners have majority votes. It would also look into other electoral matters such as whether to add a couple more seats to the five-member commission and switching from today's system in which each commissioner represents the whole city to each representing wards.

After deliberating for several months, the task force chaired by former Mayor Bruce Furness released its findings Jan. 5.

Among other things, task force members agreed to recommend switching city elections from the current "plurality voting" system to "approval voting." The task force also recommended increasing the number of commissioners from five to seven simply because the city's population has grown and could use more representation. It didn't recommend changing to a ward system.

Approval voting faces the most skepticism even from among task force members. Furness has said it hasn't been tried before in any U.S. city, and task force member Arlette Preston, a former city commissioner, said it's difficult to explain the workings to the public. But both said it would be an improvement over the current system.

Plurality vs. approval

Under plurality voting, voters now choose for only as many candidates as there are seats; in 2016, they voted for two because two seats were open. In a large field, the task force said, candidates who are alike tend to split the vote giving unique candidates an advantage. If there are four conservatives and one liberal, for instance, conservative votes are diluted among four candidates and liberal votes are concentrated in one candidate.

Under approval voting, voters choose for as many candidates as they want and the candidates with the most votes win. If there are more conservative voters, for example, they can vote for all four conservatives and be reassured that at least two of those will win simply because the liberal votes are fewer.

Grindberg said he was bothered by the untested nature of approval voting, and the task force's comments didn't reassure him. "They were divided. Just comments that have been made — there's not agreement here."

Commissioner Tony Gehrig, who has long been hostile to changing election methods, said approval voting is a "way bad idea." He said he's willing to consider adding more commissioners, an idea he asked the task force to look into.

Strand and Mahoney said they've heard from residents — Strand reported "a few dozen" messages in the last few months — and most are interested in approval voting, not expanding the number of commissioners.

The Forum also sought comment from Commissioner Dave Piepkorn but didn't hear back from him.

Gehrig, like Grindberg, said he hasn't detected any public interest in election reform and wants to see residents initiate a ballot measure if they really care. "If there's not a thousand people that can sign a signature in a town of 120,000 people, I don't think people are necessarily chomping at the bits for a change," Gehrig said.

"If we put approval voting up for a vote, we'll find out what people think," Strand said.

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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