Mark Johnson: Correcting the Record on Fargo’s Election Reform Debate

Fargo, N.D., City Commissioner Tony Gehrig listens to Commissioner Dave Piepkorn speak about Gehrig's plan to cut the city's property taxes by 20-percent during a city commissioner's meeting at the Civic Center on Monday, July 20, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum

Tu-Uyen Tran’s article (October 2) and Zac Echola’s letter (October 3) both call attention to last year’s discussion of possible election reforms in Fargo City Elections. I was the outside consultant to the Task Force that wrote those recommendations, and I’m disturbed by some claims made in both the article and the letter.

First, Tran characterizes Commissioner Tony Gehrig as “hostile to changing election methods.”

My experience in working with Commissioner Gehrig (who was also an ex-officio member of the Task Force) has been completely the opposite. In fact, he was quite open to several reform ideas, including making the Mayor’s position full-time, increasing the size of the Commission to seven members to make it more representative of a growing city, and converting our current “at-large” election system to a “mixed” system, where roughly half the members would be elected citywide, and the other half would be elected by wards. This method is currently being used in places like Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Lincoln (NE), and Duluth.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I’ve not heard any commentary from Mr. Gehrig (or any other member of the Task Force) that concern about approval voting is rooted in fear of the fact that the Democratic Socialists club in the region seems to be in favor of it.[/mks_pullquote]

In fact, Gehrig has been receptive (I would dare say, as much, or even more so, than any other Commissioner that I’ve talked to about these issues) to the idea that reform is needed in our electoral system.

That brings me to Mr. Echola’s letter. I’ve not heard any commentary from Mr. Gehrig (or any other member of the Task Force) that concern about approval voting is rooted in fear of the fact that the Democratic Socialists club in the region seems to be in favor of it. The concern about approval voting (which is even referenced in Mr. Tran’s article) stems from the fact that no governmental body actually uses it (the last was the Swedish Parliament, about 100 years ago).

As I shared with the Task Force, there’s been very little formal study in Political Science about that method, and what does exist is (1) almost 30 years old at this point; (2) rooted in hypothetical game theory, rather than analysis of actual voting behavior; and (3) inconclusive about whether it would produce results any different from what it would replace. The idea to explore approval voting came from one member of the Task Force, who spent just about every meeting talking about nothing but that idea.

What none of the reporting on the Task Force mentioned is that approval voting only garnered support from four or five of the seven members (with some of those openly skeptical about its prospects for success). Another unreported fact is that, when asked to recommend switching wholly to wards, adopting the “mixed” system, or keeping the current at-large method of apportionment, none of those three proposals could garner majority support. So, it is true, as Mr. Tran writes, that the Task Force “didn’t recommend changing to a ward system.” However, it could also be said that the Task Force didn’t recommend keeping the current at-large system, or, even more accurately, that it could come to no conclusion about how to actually apportion seats across the city.

One final curiosity is the lack of interest by the Commission (except for Commissioner Gehrig) in the other part of the Task Force’s proposal, which was to increase the size of the Commission to 7 members. This was proposed in order to make that body more representative of a diverse and growing city (Fargo’s five-member Commission, is, by far, the smallest body amongst cities of its population size in the Midwest). This proposal, by contrast, received near-unanimous support from the members of the Task Force.

It seems to me that the Commissioners (such as Gehrig) who express support for expanding the size of the Commission, while remaining skeptical about any further changes, are only reflecting the divided sentiment of the Task Force itself.