In mayoral contests, as in many human endeavors, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. That’s the problem vexing Minneapolis voters this fall. Political choice is good, but settling on first, second and third choices from a list of 35 candidates for mayor is daunting for even the most politically attuned voter.
And the mayoral race is only the beginning. Voters also must study and sort 10 candidates for three at-large seats on the Parks and Recreation Board, four for two seats on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and in most wards, between three and six contenders for City Council.
Many factors contributed to this year’s unprecedented wave of candidacies. It’s the first Minneapolis election in 20 years without an incumbent mayor on the ballot. The dominant DFL Party is divided in some wards and did not endorse a candidate for mayor, prolonging some candidacies past what would have been their usual expiration point. The willingness of so many nominal DFLers to run for the same office might fairly be seen as a reflection of the latter-day DFL’s undisciplined condition.
Ranked-choice voting, employed for only the second time in a Minneapolis election, likely enticed some candidates onto the field. RCV assures filers that they will stay in the running through the Nov. 5 election, and allows optimists among them to nurse long-shot hopes that second- and third-choice votes could propel them to an upset victory. Coupled with a low filing fee, it’s an especially friendly format for perennial candidates and, in the case of the Minneapolis mayoral contest, a pirate character and a self-described “Lauraist Communist” who believes Laura Ingalls Wilder is God.
RCV eliminated the low-turnout primary election, which traditionally had been on the second Tuesday in September. But those who tag RCV alone for the surfeit of Minneapolis candidacies are overlooking a more obvious culprit — the paltry $20 filing fee for city offices. That fee was set by city charter in 1967, when $20 was the equivalent of $140.05 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Well in advance of the 2017 city election, that fee should be raised high enough to deter recreational candidacies. That will take either the unanimous action of the City Council or, failing that, voter approval via a charter amendment referendum.
The City Council seemed poised to make such an adjustment this spring but pulled back amid concern that with three council members then running for mayor and nine others seeking re-election, the move would be seen as self-serving. Maybe so — but failing to act in the city’s best interest in order to avoid that perception is self-interested as well.
The case for a higher filing fee in Minneapolis is easily made by looking to its twin city. St. Paul’s mayoral election this year in many ways parallels the Minneapolis mayoral election of 2009 — a popular mayor is seeking a third term without a formidable challenge in an election that will be decided by RCV.
Yet St. Paul’s Chris Coleman faces only three challengers this year, while in 2009, R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis was on the ballot with 10 also-rans. The difference: In 2011, at the wise urging of Ramsey County elections chief Joe Mansky, the filing fee for mayor of St. Paul was increased from $50 to $500. The fee for council seats went from $50 to $250.
The revenue the higher fee generated was applied to the administrative costs associated with RCV, Mansky said. But the change also discouraged political hobbyists from pursuing their pastime at the expense of both taxpayers, who pay for election administration, and voters, who have finite time, energy and attention to expend on civic affairs.
State law requires that cities offer candidates the option to file by petition in lieu of paying a filing fee. Only 500 signatures are required, or 5 percent of those voting for that office in the previous general election if that number is smaller. Yet even in St. Paul after fees rose, no candidate filed by petition. That’s just as well. Petition filing is expensive to administer if election officials verify signature validity — and prone to abuse if they don’t.
Yet filing by petition has democratic appeal. Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon, head of the current council’s elections committee, said he’s considering a change that keeps Minneapolis filing fees low and adds a required collection of a larger number of signatures. We hope he reconsiders. A petition requirement is not as democratic as it seems. It favors candidates with the means to hire signature collectors. It also opens the prospect of legal tangles over the validity of petitions and/or the impartiality of those reviewing them.
San Francisco, which has used RCV since 2004, requires a mayoral filing fee of 2 percent of the mayor’s salary — $5,048 in 2011 — and offers a discount via petition signatures. That’s too rich for Minnesota blood. But it shows that the major U.S. city with the most experience with RCV sees merit in combining that voting method with a filing fee large enough to give casual candidates pause. San Francisco’s mayoral race attracted 12 candidates in 2007 and 16 in 2011.
Minneapolis erred in not raising its filing fee this year. It should correct that mistake soon after the new council convenes in 2014.