Vote for everyone you like — Fargo tests approval voting

Silhouettes of voters waiting nearby a window.
Voters line up inside the Fargo (N.D.) Public Library to cast their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Michael Vosburg | The Forum 2016

Fargo voters strongly backed approval voting in a 2018 initiated measure, after a taskforce on election reform proposed the idea.

Jed Limke served on the taskforce, formed in response to concerns about city leaders being elected with less than 20 percent of the vote.

"I remember, the winner won with four out of every five voters not voting for the winner. And that felt wrong," he said.

Limke, who leads a local group advocating for approval voting, said the taskforce considered ranked choice, or instant runoff voting, where voters can chose multiple candidates and rank them in order of preference. Minneapolis, St. Paul and several metro suburban communities use instant runoff voting.

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Limke felt that process was too complicated after struggling to explain how it works.

"With approval voting, I can say, vote yes or no to each one. Most votes wins. And I am done explaining approval voting to you," he said.

This is the second Fargo election to use approval voting. The first was in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic limited voting to mail in ballots.

Approval voting has not been adopted as widely as ranked choice voting. Fargo and St. Louis are the only two U.S. cities currently using it, and there’s an effort to put the question to a vote in Seattle.

A man points and gives instructions to a voter.
Election judge Dave Wallis, right, assists a voter on Nov. 3 at the polls in the Fargodome.
Dave Olson | The Forum 2020

North Dakota State University political science professor and Fargo resident, Kjersten Nelson, plans to vote for multiple candidates. There are seven mayoral candidates and 15 candidates for two at large city commission seats.

“With such a huge field, I have sort of appreciated that I haven't had to narrow it down to one or two,” said Nelson.

She thinks approval voting has the potential to open elections to more candidates.

"I do think there's, in theory, the potential that people would be willing to maybe vote for candidates who they don't think can win, but they really do support, which might give a more accurate sense of what they would prefer."

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, sees pros and cons to approval voting. But he understands the appeal for voters.

“There are a lot of people who feel like their preferences have been suppressed by the limits of our voting system,” he said “Approval voting is kind of unchaining voters to say ‘support the candidates you like,’ and it could be more than one. This could help candidates who in the past might not have received any votes or received very few votes.”

On the other hand, in a race where candidates are divided along ideological lines or around big issues, approval voting might make it difficult to see a clear voter mandate, said Jacobs.

Approval voting has detractors who say it discourages coalition building and allows candidates to win with a minority of the vote.

Jeanne Massey is executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota, a group that advocates for ranked choice voting. She contends a weakness of approval voting is that all choices on a voters ballot carry equal weight.

"And that means that your second choice can undermine your first choice. Therein lies the key problem with the incentives that approval voting creates, which is the incentive to simply indicate one preference," said Massey, who said the goal of her organization is a more responsive, participatory and inclusive democracy.

“We don't believe that approval voting does that and so we don't promote it. And we wouldn't advocate that others promote.”

In the first Fargo city election to use approval voting, 18,805 voters cast 42,700 votes.

Jed Limke insists voting for multiple candidates is not diluting the vote. It’s simply a different mindset about voting.

“That's you saying ‘I would be happy with Becky or Jim’. That's what you're saying. You're not diluting your power,” said Limke. “If you only believe in one candidate, then only vote for one. That's the flexibility of this. I don't want you to be forced to support other candidates. That is not what this is about."

Approval voting increased the winning percentage for candidates in the 2020 election, Limke said.

However there’s confusion about how the votes are tallied.

The measure voters approved to adopt approval voting provided clear instructions. It included this line: “reported vote percentages must be calculated by taking the number of votes for that candidate divided by the total ballots cast.”

But the North Dakota Secretary of State election reporting system uses total votes cast to calculate the percentage of votes a candidate receives. That’s misleading, said Limke, and has been used by critics to point out that approval voting did not increase winning percentages.

For example, the winner with the most votes in the 2020 city commission election is listed as officially receiving 24 percent of the vote. But he was the choice of 55 percent of voters.

An official in the Secretary of States office said calculating percentages by the number of ballots cast would be the most accurate representation of support.

Adding to potential election confusion, Fargo voters will choose school board and park board members on the same ballot, and those races do not use approval voting.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness
Jennifer Simonson for MPR News | 2012

Approval voting is not used in Minnesota. In 2018 a Duluth task force led by former mayor Don Ness considered approval voting, but it was not brought to a vote.

Still, Ness remains a strong proponent of the concept.

"I'm thrilled that Fargo had the courage to try something new. And there are a lot of communities including Duluth, that will be looking to their example and looking to the lessons that they've learned to then determine whether or not it's an experiment that we can bring to our local elections,” said Ness. “I still think that it is the best election system that I'm aware of.”

But approval voting has been slow to catch on.

“The efforts of reformers have gravitated towards ranked choice voting, which has more organized support and is being adopted in more towns and cities,” said Jacobs.

"I just think that it's not kind of the mainstream thought of what people think when they go vote, like ‘I can vote for whomever I want’,” said Nelson. “Some people will vote for 12 people and some people will vote for one person. It just kind of culturally doesn't fit with how we think about voting."

Nelson says it's too early to judge the impact of approval voting on Fargo elections. That will require many more election cycles.

Jed Limke knows there will be continued debate about the best voting method, but he plans to keep advocating for approval voting.

“Maybe the best election method is for all of us to write essays on which person we want to win. And then we have retired elementary school teachers grade them. And then the smoke comes out of city hall and they've selected a new mayor, like, I don't know, maybe that's the best method,” said Limke, tongue in cheek.

“But this one's pretty darn good. And it's simple and straightforward.”