I knew the Minneapolis mayoral race had taken a strange turn a day or two after the candidate filing period ended and I was greeted by one of my favorite deli workers at the Lake St. Lund’s.
“I did it!” an exuberant Neal Baxter told me. “I filed for mayor!”
I knew Baxter to be a well-informed, civic-minded sort. But his political ambition was news to me. What he said next was more revealing: “It was only $20, so I figured, why not?”
I made a quick mental note: Got to call for a higher filing fee in city elections.
“What name did you file under?” I thought to ask. “Are you Captain Jack Sparrow?”
No, Baxter assured. He’s on the ballot under his own name. And he has a sincere four-point platform, including a call for a lively celebration of the sesquicentennial of the city’s 1867 incorporation: “The state’s 150th birthday was a complete dud, as very little money was earmarked for it. We can do better.” (A note to file away for 2017.)
The same cannot be said for all of the 34 others contending to be elected Mill City CEO on Nov. 5. They include a dozen or two political hobbyists, one Occupirate and a guy nicknamed “The Rock.” Maybe that’s not a bad ballot handle. After all, Minnesotans elected a governor 15 years ago who billed himself as “The Body.”
I’ve been party to a lot of chats with Minneapolis voters since that deli encounter. The initial amusement I heard about the surfeit of city candidates has given way to worry and grousing. The worry is that the winner will be ill-suited to leadership in a growing-again city and region. The grousing is about the new election scheme that many people hold responsible for the deluge of candidates — ranked-choice voting.
I counsel a few deep breaths and calmer analysis: RCV isn’t blameless in running up the candidate numbers. But it’s not the biggest driver either. Quoting Baxter: “It was only $20.”
Further, RCV is the reason Minneapolitans have little reason to worry that they’ll wake up on Nov. 6 — or 7, 8 or 9 (this may take a while) — to news that their next mayor is someone they’ve never heard of.
Because RCV tallies not only voters’ first choices but also the second and potentially third choices of voters whose first-choice candidates lose, it’s the system best suited to a multicandidate contest. It’s designed to elect the candidate with the broadest support.
Suspicion that RCV is having a pernicious influence on city politics seemed to be escalating last week within the political chattering class — so much so that I voiced sympathy when I spoke last week with Jeanne Massey, executive director of RCV-promoting FairVote Minnesota.
My condolences weren’t needed. Massey was as unflappable and upbeat about RCV as ever. She had one message to hammer home, and it wasn’t “don’t blame RCV.” It was: “The way to maximize the power of your ballot is to rank all three choices.”
Voters shouldn’t listen to anyone who argues that there’s an advantage in voting for only a first-choice candidate, she said. Such a ballot will be counted. But if that ballot’s first-choice candidate is not among the top several vote-getters, it’s going to be examined for its second or third choice at some point in the counting. If second and third choices aren’t marked, that ballot is “exhausted.” It has lost its influence on the outcome.
Leaving second and third choices unregistered “is akin to voting in the primary election and sitting out the general” election in the years before RCV eliminated the city primary, Massey said.
With the election only 23 days away, it’s understandable that voter education tops Massey’s to-do list. Do it well, and critics who call the new voting method too complicated will have to find another excuse for their hostility. But I think Massey is going to need to hone a “don’t blame RCV” message pretty soon. She might try something along these lines:
• The first election in 20 years without an incumbent mayor on the ballot was always going to be a candidate magnet, especially in a city that’s a hotbed of civic participation.
• The DFL Party’s failure to endorse for mayor led to the termination of only one serious candidacy — Gary Schiff’s — and encouraged other nominal DFLers to wade in.
• The cast of known candidates at filing time did not include a clear front-runner. (It still doesn’t.) That looked inviting to people with axes to grind and egos to feed.
• Those factors made this the year to boost the city election filing fee. It’s been at $20 since 1967 and is overdue for an increase. By comparison, St. Paul’s mayoral filing fee is $500. In April, City Council elections chair Cam Gordon gave his colleagues a chance to raise the mayoral fee to $250. Council members declined.
• Yes, some candidates may have decided to run because of RCV. They may have thought the absence of a primary improved their prospects. They may have been buoyed by the idea that they could win enough second- and third-place votes to be contenders. But that thinking rests on the wrongheaded notion that one can win an RCV election purely on the strength of second and third choices. One cannot.
• In a multicandidate election, RCV isn’t the problem. It’s the solution. It may warrant a little voter education. It may challenge candidates to craft messages that distinguish themselves without repelling voters who favor their opponents. But chances are that it will give the next Minneapolis mayor stronger claim to democratic legitimacy than a low-turnout primary and subsequent two-way general election campaign could.
Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.