The Trump presidency is good for the political reform business, judging from the ideas Minnesotans have lately lobbed my way about how to make government a plus rather than a menacing minus in their lives.
I’ve heard proposals aplenty. Term limits, a perennial entrant, still holds fascination for some (but not me). Nonpartisan redistricting is a favorite of many (including me). A June primary sounds good to just about everybody but the legislators who are stuck in St. Paul in the spring. Automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds is a fine idea but might not get young adults to actually vote. Campaign finance limits on special-interest sway would be a good thing, but the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment makes them very hard to achieve.
One earnest fellow asked whether the trouble boils down to the election of flawed politicians. I wish it were that simple, I replied. My observation is that, at least in Minnesota, voters generally elect good people. But they’re sent to work in a flawed system.
The rages and outrages of President Donald Trump appear to be adding urgency to political improvement projects. But consensus about which remedies are both powerful and achievable has been lacking. That’s why two prominent people who have thrown themselves into the political reform business are in Minnesota this week. Michael Porter, an oft-quoted business competitiveness guru at Harvard Business School, and Katherine Gehl, a Milwaukee-area food manufacturing CEO cum political reformer, have teamed up to warn that political dysfunction has become America’s greatest competitive disadvantage in the global economy.
Their September 2017 Harvard Business School paper, “Why competition in the politics industry is failing America,” describes modern American politics as a duopoly that serves the private interests of the two major parties and their allies rather than the public interest. The system is designed not to solve public problems, but to perpetuate them as electoral weapons. Real competition from third parties or independent candidates has been rendered nearly impossible.
Porter and Gehl maintain that the resulting inability of American governments to address public needs is causing the deterioration of a number of things that 21st century business competition requires — quality K-12 education, an independent judiciary, affordable health care, orderly and sufficient immigration, to name a few.
To their credit, Porter and Gehl don’t just admire the problem. They’ve thrown themselves into trying to solve it, Gehl told me last week. They’re following the advice Porter has long been giving corporate executives about improving their competitive positions: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” Porter wrote in 1996.
When they apply that dictum to political reform, Gehl said, two ideas to generate more geniune competition in American politics rise to the top: nonpartisan primary elections that would send four candidates regardless of party to the general-election ballot, and ranked-choice voting to ensure that the ultimate winner has majority support.
Those two ideas would work together to create more genuine competition than voters experience today. Politicians would become less beholden to party insiders and donors and would see more incentives to appeal to average voters, Gehl said.
In a lot of states, those might sound like radical proposals. In Minnesota, they aren’t so far-fetched. Minnesota has partisan state primaries, but with no party registration required, they are already open to all voters. Elders remember when the legislative ballot was nonpartisan. Everyone who votes in a municipal election experiences a nonpartisan ballot today.
And Minnesotans have been hearing about ranked-choice voting for at least a decade. It’s been used in recent Minneapols and St. Paul city elections and will come next year to St. Louis Park. The nonpartisan ranked voting advocacy organization, FairVote MN, is hosting one of the two Porter-Gehl Twin Cities public appearances, Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. They’ll also appear Monday at 10 a.m. at the Carlson School of Management. Sunday’s event is ticketed; Monday’s is free but requires registration.
Ranked-choice voting is being teed up for action by the 2019 Legislature. The bill FairVote MN is pushing would allow other cities to more easily follow the lead of Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park and would set statewide standards for the voting method’s implementation. FairVote’s Jeanne Massey said that while her organization is intrigued by the positive potential of nonpartisan primaries — provided those primaries employ ranked-choice voting to determine the winners — it will stick with its “local option” bill in 2019. “It’s hard to enact two reforms at once,” Massey said.
Nor is her organization ready to ask the Legislature to take ranked-choice voting statewide. Only one state, Maine, has done so, and there the courts have limited its reach because of a provision peculiar to the Maine state constitution, though more court action is pending.
FairVote MN appears to have embraced Porter’s advice about choosing what not to do. I’ll let Gehl and Massey tussle over whether Massey is taking that advice too far.
I’d rather use today’s ink to urge all those Trump-energized Minnesota political reformers to come together in coming weeks for some coordinated activity at the Legislature next spring. Changing electoral processes is never easy at the Legislature. Every vote for change must come from someone who mastered the existing system and expects to do so again.
Likewise, it won’t be easy for those who see value in an independent redistricting commission or campaign finance disclosure requirements or a June primary to concede that another idea might be more potent and achievable. But they should note that one of this nation’s foremost authorities on competition says that increasing authentic competition is key to making American government work — and that he teaches that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
• • •
An error was spotted in last week’s column about Minnesota’s taxation of Social Security income by a reader who identified himself as an 83-year-old who does his own taxes. The column said that individuals with income other than Social Security of less than $32,000 (married couples) or $25,000 (singles) do not owe state tax. In fact, those amounts include one-half of Social Security benefits, which means a small state income tax is sometimes owed even at those low income levels. Minnesota House Research estimates that individuals with taxable incomes at or below those amounts pay an average of $20 in state income tax on their Social Security benefits.
I’m glad to correct the error. It lets me say that Minnesota should spare all low-income Social Security recipients from state income taxes on those benefits. And it lets me salute one of the Legislature’s finest, Joel Michael, who recently retired from House Research after decades of patiently explaining tax policy intricacies to confused legislators and ignorant journalists. Michael exemplifies the best in public service.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.