Bill addressing voting methods goes before legislature

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 8:55 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit certain voting methods in North Dakota, like approval voting.

When it comes to voting, the method that’s traditionally used is best--so says Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo.

“The problem with both ranked-choice voting and approval voting is that they both have the potential to dilute the vote of the voter’s chosen candidate,” said Koppelman.

The traditional method is called first past the post voting. Think of it like how voting works in most parts of North Dakota: you get a field of candidates, and you vote for the number of seats that are available. So, what are the advantages, if any, to abandoning the traditional way of voting? One is that a candidate who appeals to a wide spectrum of people is more likely to be selected.

“These methods are more likely to result in candidates who are viewed as politically moderate being elected,” said Joe Kennedy, instructional designer at Concordia College in Moorhead, who teaches a class that addresses different voting methods.

First past the post voting also poses an issue: in crowded fields, candidates who receive well below the majority of the vote could win. That’s what happened in 2018, when two Fargo City Commission candidates won the race with 16% and 14% of the vote.

“The community thought, man, ‘there’s five commissioners, including the mayor,’ and they thought, ‘that’s not a high percentage for putting somebody in office,’” said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney.

So, now the city of Fargo uses approval voting, where voters select all the candidates of which they approve. That means, in a field of 20 candidates, one person could choose one or eight or 17 candidates, and the candidates who receive the most votes are elected.

Since all votes are equally weighted, if someone on the left voted for their first choice and second choice, and someone on the right voted for their first choice and second choice, the second choice would prevail because they got two votes, even though that person is nobody’s first choice. And that is Rep. Koppelman’s issue with approval voting.

“It’s possible that a candidate who well over half the voters see as a top candidate could lose to someone who nobody sees as their top choice,” said Koppelman.

But Fargo’s mayor said passing a bill at the state level that would prohibit a voting method from being used that was approved by 64% of voters in Fargo in 2016 would be overreach by the State Legislature.

“This is a direct hit on local control. The manner in which political subdivisions in North Dakota choose to elect their commissioners, serve the interests of their communities, and govern themselves, is a question that should be left to local voters,” said Mahoney.

The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.

The other method HB 1273 would ban is ranked choice voting, where voters rank who they would like to win. That isn’t used in North Dakota, but it has been adopted in states like Alaska.