Minnesota is a purple state politically. That should come as no surprise to anyone who gives even a cursory look at recent elections. We elect a Democratic governor, but a Republican Legislature. Four of the most competitive races for the U.S. House are in Minnesota. Two seats could flip from red to blue and two from blue to red. The recent Star Tribune-MPR News Minnesota Poll acknowledges the divide, creating a survey sample that reflects a population of voters who are within a few percentage points of being one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans and one-third independents and others. Minnesotans aren’t tied to a single party; the strong tradition is to vote for the best candidate.
Sometimes that “best candidate” isn’t a Democrat or a Republican. Third-party candidates in Minnesota have elevated important issues, have forced Democrats and Republicans to tone down the negative campaigns while offering more specificity in their own proposals and sometimes have won the election. All that history is ignored by political activist William Cory Labovitch in his commentary “Do third-party voters now understand spoiler risks?” (Sept. 17). Instead of urging Democrats and Republicans to select better candidates, Labovitch complains that the 9 percent of Minnesotans for someone other than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton wasted their votes and abused their constitutional right to make an informed selection.
In fact, it’s a tribute to Minnesotans’ faith in democracy that only 9 percent opted out of the two-party offerings. Four in 10 voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center in the 2016 campaign said neither candidate would make a good president.
More and more Minnesotans are giving up on the electoral process, not by voting for third-party candidates but by staying home. Minnesota voter turnout in gubernatorial years has been falling since 2002. In the last contest, 2014, turnout barely topped 50 percent of those eligible, down from 65 percent in 2002.
Labovitch dismisses the effort, sincerity and hard work of anyone who runs for office with demeaning statements like “moreover, all third-party or independent candidates get votes just by slapping their names on the ballot.” Oh, were it only that easy. In 2010, I managed Tom Horner’s Independence Party campaign for governor. Our polls had Horner neck-and-neck with Republican Tom Emmer as late as mid-October and within striking distance of DFLer Mark Dayton. But in the closing weeks, Horner, who didn’t take any money from PACs or independent expenditure groups, was overwhelmed by the special interests who poured money into Minnesota to promote their candidates, attack the other guys and quietly but very effectively undermine Horner’s support with the wasted-vote argument. If partisans want to claim that Horner took votes from Dayton or Emmer, it’s just as fair to argue that they took Horner’s votes.
The better arguments, though, are the ones that Horner made in 2010: The political system needs reform. Rather than shutting down diverse candidates who bring new ideas and energy to a rapidly stagnating and polarizing political environment, the doors should be open to more robust campaigns. Campaigns could be more thoughtful and substantive, and creative policies could gain a foothold with strategic reforms, including these two:
First, adopt ranked-choice voting statewide. Allow voters to have more meaningful choices on Election Day by having candidates who can go beyond the limits imposed by big donors and party activists. No one can claim “wasted votes” in a system of ranked-choice voting. Candidates have the incentive to focus their time and advertising on winning support, not attacking an opponent.
Second, counter the massive amounts of special-interest money with public financing that puts a priority on small contributions. In 2010, Horner had to raise $35,000 from at least 700 Minnesotans by mid-July to qualify for public financing. That’s a high bar and discourages those candidates who are just “slapping their names on the ballot.” Putting more resources into the state pool of public funds while keep the qualifying criteria high would be a good investment in democracy.
Of course, both of these proposals can pass only with the support of Democrats and Republicans, and it’s a tough sell asking them to give up some of their advantages. Maybe what it will take is more third-party candidates — and voters who believe that sometimes principle is more important than winning — to light the fire of reform.
Stephen Imholte, of Minneapolis, is a consultant to civic organizations.