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A better ballot will lead to a better future

  • Article by: JOHN HARRINGTON and BAO VANG
  • October 23, 2011 - 4:14 PM

Any good financial planner will tell you: If you want to build wealth, diversify.

That principle applies in governance, too.

It's no secret that these are economically challenging times -- for our city, our state and our country. But our rich cultural and political diversity, in St. Paul and increasingly across Minnesota, is an asset that can benefit all of us. And we've barely begun to tap it.

To solve the economic problems facing us, we've got to draw more fully on the wealth of knowledge, experience and talent in St. Paul and throughout Minnesota. This need to put our heads together to maximize our state's full potential is one of many reasons we support ranked-choice voting (or "ranked voting," as it's called in St. Paul). We're thrilled that St. Paul will start using RCV this fall, and we passionately support the goal of implementing it statewide.

This simple, sensible reform has been shown to increase political participation by communities that have been historically underrepresented, including women, people of color -- and folks who haven't been part of the political establishment. Witness, in Oakland, Calif., the victory of Jean Quan, the first female Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city, who beat her machine-politics opponent despite being outspent five to one.

And in San Francisco, RCV has helped lead to the most diverse Board of Supervisors in the city's history: Eight out of 11 supervisors are people of color; three are female, and two are openly gay. Since RCV was enacted, the number of people of color elected to the Board of Supervisors has doubled. Even former RCV foes concede that it forces them to reach out to voters they might otherwise have ignored -- and since there's a clear benefit to being a voter's second choice, it minimizes mudslinging and elevates campaigning (and governance) to a more civilized plane.

Ranked-choice voting also heightens citizen engagement: Primary turnout is lowest in communities of color, which means that those who are already underrepresented have little voice in the "weeding" process. By eliminating low-turnout municipal primaries (just 5 percent in the last St. Paul election), and folding two elections into one high-turnout, more-diverse November election, RCV increases voter participation, producing outcomes that are more meaningful and more representative.

Expanding access to political power and policymaking is how we get new perspectives, fresh ideas and outside-the-box solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

RCV is a far-reaching reform, but it works in a straightforward way. Voters "rank" their preferences: First, second, third, etc. In a single-seat election, if no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes are redistributed to remaining candidates until one receives a majority of continuing votes. It works like a runoff but happens in a single election, avoiding the expense and hassle of a second election.

Several cities across the country use RCV: San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro in California; Takoma Park, Md.; Hendersonville, N.C., and Cambridge, Mass. RCV will be used for the first time in Portland, Maine, and Telluride, Colo., this fall, and use is pending in many other cities. Surveys show that with strong voter education, a well-designed ballot and well-trained election judges, voters of all ages, income levels and ethnic groups understand the system and want to continue using it. Following the successful 2009 debut in Minneapolis, 95 percent of voters polled said that RCV was simple to use.

Ranked-choice voting at the state level would mitigate the deeply un-Minnesotan divisiveness, rancor and exclusion that have hampered our ability to move forward in recent years. You don't need us to tell you that we're in a deep recession, and at the state level, budget decisions made to end the three-week government shutdown will do little to strengthen us for the long-term.

We can do better. Minnesota remains full of energy, creativity, possibility. To realize that possibility, we need to make sure that everyone's invested, and everyone's contributing. If we again embrace a substantive, solutions-based politics while capitalizing on the vibrant richness of skills and ideas throughout our 21st-century citizenry -- and ranked voting can help us with both -- Minnesota can do anything.

John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota Senate. Bao Vang is president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership.

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