It appears that thanks to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, presidential campaign klieg lights are about to shine on Minnesota again. We political junkies have missed their glow.
Klobuchar’s big reveal is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Boom Island in Minneapolis, where her supporters will be warmed by hot chocolate, home-state pride and the feminist fun of seeing a favorite DFL daughter seize a role once played by favorite DFL sons Humphrey, McCarthy and Mondale.
Just the mention of those names (let’s add Republicans Stassen, Pawlenty and Bachmann, too, to complete the modern-era roster of Minnesota wannabes) might summon a chill. They call to mind the fact that no Minnesotan has ever trod an easy path to a presidential nomination. No Gopher State contender has won the big prize.
If that history doesn’t dampen spirits, awareness of today’s Democratic Party divisions might. If Klobuchar’s word Sunday is “go” — and one does not commandeer a Minneapolis park in February and invite the national media if one plans “no go” — she will join a roster of Democratic candidates that’s 10 deep at this writing and expected to keep growing. The competition is more than daunting.
Klobuchar’s backers can credibly claim that she stands apart from the rest. She’s the first Midwestern entrant and by some measures the most philosophically moderate in a field that’s leaning to the left. She’s pragmatic, productive and policy-oriented. She possesses proven bipartisan appeal, prodigious energy and an underrated political asset: a sunny disposition.
But it’s just as accurate to say that Klobuchar isn’t well-known outside the Midwest and does not have a ready-made national constituency to boost her out of single digits in the early polls or primaries. Her appeal may be broader than most. But she could be the second or third choice of a lot of Democratic primary voters whose initial choice is someone else.
The thought may occur to today’s Klobuchar crowd: If only there were a voting method in presidential primaries and caucuses that would allow a consensus winner to emerge from a large field. A way, say, for voters to give an advantage to a candidate who enjoys lots of second- and third-choice support over one who does not. A way to grant the nominee the advantage of backing by a demonstrated majority of her party’s rank-and-file.
How fitting that those thoughts might arise in Minneapolis, where ranked-choice voting has been in use in municipal elections for the past 10 years.
Using ranked-choice voting in presidential primaries in 2020 is a political junkie’s daydream — or so I thought. Then I was advised to check with Cara Brown McCormick, the co-founder of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting in Maine. It’s the first state in the nation to use ranked-choice voting statewide, including in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. That voting method allowed winner Janet Mills to secure a majority in a seven-candidate field and may have helped propel her to a general-election victory.
McCormick is lobbying the Maine Legislature to switch from caucuses to a presidential primary (the same change Minnesota has already made for 2020) and to use ranked-choice voting in that election. She told me that the bid has a good shot, and that Minnesota could do the same thing.
“It’s not too late. Absolutely not,” she assured. “It will take a huge effort, but it’s entirely possible.”
States have considerable latitude in deciding how to conduct presidential primaries, she noted. And the Democratic National Committee’s new rules for precinct caucuses require a balloting option for non-attendees in a way that seems to encourage ranked-choice voting, though it stops short of requiring it.
Using RCV for presidential delegate allotment would be in keeping with something Iowa’s caucuses have long featured and that some DFLers will remember, too. Delegates in Iowa are chosen via “walking subcaucuses” that are, in essence, ranked-choice voting with one’s feet. Participants can move to second- or third-choice caucuses until the one chosen is large enough to be “viable” and thereby authorized to elect a delegate.
Maine’s voters have twice affirmed their preference for ranked-choice voting via ballot questions, McCormick said. The method has ample bipartisan support and has withstood court challenges. It’s ready for wider use.
“More than that: It’s incredibly urgent. I can’t emphasize that enough,” McCormick said. “This can save our system.”
That big claim is grounded in a big worry: Democracy in America is being perverted by a presidential nominating process that puts too much power in too few hands. Majority rule is eroding, and with it government’s legitimacy and ability to function.
That problem can be exacerbated by a large field of candidates for president. Witness the 2016 Republican presidential campaign and its 17 contenders in the run-up to the first primaries and caucuses. Donald Trump likely could not have won majority votes in many states in the early going or even the middle rounds. He likely was not the GOP’s consensus favorite. But he could command a plurality in a big field. Without a way to know and count primary voters’ second choices, a series of plurality victories was all the nomination required.
I’d guess that recent Republican history is on the minds of some of the Democratic operatives and old hands who are planning the Amy Show at Boom Island. Until now, some of them have been less than enthusiastic about ranked-choice voting. They’ve feared that it would weaken the party establishment.
But as they contemplate how to get Klobuchar across the finish line first in Iowa, they may begin to see ranked-choice voting in a more favorable light.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at email@example.com.