When the time came for the St. Louis Park City Council to vote on ranked-choice voting April 16, tallying the decision came easily: 7-0.
However, the decision itself came less easily to Councilmember Steve Hallfin, who announced after a public hearing that he still felt undecided.
To avoid a referendum, the city charter requires a unanimous vote by the council to change the city’s voting method. After the April 16 vote, the council will need to vote unanimously again to finalize the change to the city charter that would allow city elections to be determined by voters ranking their choices for each council seat. A second vote is scheduled Monday, May 7.
“This is a tough one,” Hallfin said after a public hearing that mainly featured supporters of the change. “It seems from everybody who came up and spoke that it’s just an easy no-brainer. But this is a fundamental change in the way that we elect us, the seven of us up here. And where I’m having an issue with it is the seven of us deciding how the seven of us get chosen. That’s where I’m having a lot of internal struggle.”
He said he would listen to what other council members had to say on the topic.
“The 7-0 threshold is the highest threshold we have,” Hallfin said. “Literally, all seven of us have to agree on this before it moves forward. It’s almost like the U.N. Security Council up here on this one. One vote makes a huge change. As many of my colleagues know, I reached out to every single one of them over the past couple of days, and we all had really good conversations on this.”
He said he felt bothered when people spoke about a need for more civil elections. Proponents of ranked-choice voting have asserted that the system supports civility because candidates will want their opponents’ supporters to include them in their ballot rankings.
However, Hallfin said, “I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life, since 1967. I have yet to see an uncivil St. Louis Park election.”
Resident Katherine Christoffel said during the public hearing that council members should trust voters to apply the skill of ranking to voting like they do to other everyday tasks, like ranking movies or shopping choices.
Hallfin responded, “That actually is more of an argument to go out to referendum. Let’s trust the voters on how we pick ourselves, not the seven of us to pick ourselves.”
Conversely, he said he did find some arguments compelling. In particular, he pointed to the arguments of resident Michael Faeth, a middle school and high school social studies teacher.
During his comments, Faeth said, “Sometimes it’s difficult to teach elections, not because it’s hard but because it’s depressing.”
Explaining a lack of voter turnout, a dearth of candidates and the reasons “why nobody who looks like they look like sits in positions of power” can be challenging, Faeth said.
The teacher said he supported anything that moved in the direction of opening gates for different people and third parties – or in St. Louis Park, sometimes, for a second party. Faeth said he supports “anything that sort of gives a nod to saying we’re open to competition, we’re open to a voice we haven’t heard before, we’re open to something that’s different than what you expect to see.”
Faeth said he does not view ranked-choice voting as a panacea to solving election-related problems. However, he said, “If anything, it provides acknowledgment to the attempt to create a system that’s more equitable, that’s more fair that’s arguably more just.”
After the meeting, Hallfin said comments by two speakers of color, Zaylore Stout and Justin Grays, also influenced his vote in support of ranked-choice voting.
Stout, a candidate for the city council last year who has since moved to Minneapolis, told council members, “The success of future, diverse candidates who look like me may rest in your hands tonight because those future candidates will not be able to campaign on the fact that they were able to purchase their grandparents’ home here in St. Louis Park or that they lived in St. Louis Park for 40 years or that they’re third-generation St. Louis Park residents.”
He said redlining prevented people of various ethnicities from buying or renting property in many areas in the Twin Cities. He asserted that ranked-choice voting can counter flaws in the voting system that can disenfranchise or discourage minority residents from participating as voters or candidates.
“A failure on an important reform like this leaves us to only believe that the city is giving lip service to an important issue of equity and equality that it’s championing in other areas,” Stout said. “The city’s government needs to begin to reflect the community they’re tasked to represent. In my view, this is an important step toward making this aspiration a reality.”
Grays, of St. Louis Park, said more than 40 percent of eligible voters did not cast a ballot in the last presidential election.
“We want to have a system that encourages everyone to have a voice in the system and have someone in office who represents the broadest possible population base,” Grays said. “What that has to do with St. Louis Park is we need to also have ranked-choice voting to encourage other municipalities, the state and other states to have it.”
Grays added, “We should make that happen here, encourage other places to do it, and then eventually change will happen.”
Resident Susan Niz, one of several speakers who Councilmember Thom Miller referenced as influential in later comments, said that ranked-choice voting would create systemic change.
“It is a policy change,” Niz said. “It does not rely on sentiment or intention to be effective. It shifts the structure of our democracy just enough, it nudges open the door. It creates opportunity, and opportunity is how we can counter privilege, work to repair inequity, and build a city which lives up to the sentiment ‘all are welcome here.’”
Mayor Jake Spano agreed with comments regarding equity, but he provided a nuanced review of ranked-choice voting.
While working in the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, Spano said he has observed elections with high turnout in races with and without ranked-choice voting. In San Francisco, a mayoral race turned bitter and vitriolic despite the use of ranked-choice voting in the city, he said. And ranked-choice voting does not always guarantee that more than half of voters ranked the winner in one of the positions on their ballot, as occurred in a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board election.
“When I talk to some folks who are supporters of ranked-choice voting and I say those things, it’s very difficult for them to acknowledge that, and I think it’s OK to acknowledge that,” said Spano, who is currently Minnesota’s deputy secretary of state. “Frankly, I think it bolsters the force of your argument.”
Spano said he did find the argument compelling that ranked-choice voting helps people of color and indigenous people whose families do not have a legacy in the community.
“We’ve had candidates, people of color, who have run for offices in this city who have not been able to say, ‘I was a lifelong resident,’” Spano said.
The mayor, who grew up in Kansas, said during his campaign that he could have chosen any place to live but picked St. Louis Park. However, Spano said that message has not always resonated for candidates of color.
“I’m not suggesting that it didn’t resonate specifically because of race, but I think there’s a pretty darn good chance that that was the reason,” Spano said.
The mayor said he researched the composition of city councils in municipalities across the country that use ranked-choice voting for council elections. His unscientific study found that 38 percent of the people on the city councils of such cities were people of color, he said.
“I think that ranked-choice voting may solve that problem here,” Spano said. “It may not solve that problem here. But looking at this, this is the one consistent data point I could find in all of these arguments that tells me that ranked-choice voting is maybe something that St. Louis Park should have. And the only way we’re going to find out if it works here is if we’re going to try it here.”
Comments from other council members
Councilmember Tim Brausen noted that he replaced an African-American council member, Julia Ross, who won previously on her first run for the seat.
“We have had opportunity and access in the past,” Brausen said. “She recruited me to run when she had trouble recruiting candidates of color. If we adopt this, which I hope we do, I would certainly encourage underrepresented groups ... to consider running for public office.”
Miller said he believes ranked-choice voting does create an atmosphere in which indigenous people and people of color have a better opportunity to run for office.
“That ability to vote for a non-establishment candidate is really what ranked-choice voting does,” Miller said.
With legislators discussing a ban on ranked-choice voting in Minnesota, Miller said, “If we don’t pass this unanimously tonight, it sort of feeds that perception that ranked-choice voting is controversial and shouldn’t be left up to cities like St. Louis Park to decide.”
Councilmember Anne Mavity reminded Hallfin that he frequently has stressed that he takes the recommendations of city commissions seriously. The city charter and human rights commissions approved resolutions in support of ranked-choice voting.
Mavity, who noted that her husband has concerns about ranked-choice voting, nevertheless discussed her support for the system in personal terms. She lived in Russia for four years after the Soviet Union ended. She sought to help create a democratic, parliamentary election in Russia and worked as an international election monitor. She recalled meeting with people who had been released from gulags in which they had been imprisoned because they sought the right to vote.
“I tell you what, here we don’t fully appreciate how precious this is,” Mavity said of voting.
Mavity said she supported efforts to help engage more people in the voting process. Referring to recent close or tied races in parts of the United States, she said, “Every voter really does matter, and it is really distressing when folks feel like it doesn’t and so they don’t engage and they don’t vote.”
To Hallfin, Mavity said the city charter envisioned a process by which all council members could vote unanimously to make a change without a referendum.
“It gave us the power and authorization to do this, and it anticipated this moment,” Mavity said.
The charter also allows voters to force a referendum if they do not agree with the unanimous council decision.
Large-scale effort would trigger a referendum
Within 60 days of the ordinance’s publication, scheduled Thursday, May 17, a group of 2,000 voters or at least five percent of registered voters – whichever is less – would be required to sign a petition to block the change. If they did so, the change could not become effective unless approved by voters.
Councilmember Margaret Rog said every email she had received on the topic had been in favor of ranked-choice voting. No groundswell of opposition emerged during council and charter commission hearings, either, though resident Roger Cruze reiterated his opposition during the council’s public hearing.
“I would be surprised if two percent of the voting population actually know how ranked-choice voting works,” Cruze said. “Anyone knows how to put a number against a candidate, but they don’t know what it means.”
He argued that ranked-choice voting would not promote diversity. For speakers who said the system helped create a more diverse city council in Minneapolis, Cruze said, “This is nonsense. They did their job. They simply got out and knocked on a lot of doors, they got a lot of people interested in the voting, and that’s why they had the turnout. It wasn’t causal. It was coincidental.”
He said ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for an expensive and time-consuming primary, but he asserted that the change helps established candidates.
Cruze said, “Ranked-choice voting saves a lot of politicians a lot of time and money, and by default, it minimizes the amount of time that a politician has to spend defending himself and his position. Ranked-choice voting is indeed good for incumbent politicians, but it is bad for the rest of us because we’re going to know less about the politicians and it’s going to be much harder for us to change regimes.”
After ruminating over the public comments, Hallfin decided to say “aye” during the vote on ranked-choice voting.
“I’m not against it,” Hallfin said, emphasizing his concern about council members making the decision themselves.
The testimony of speakers and other information he learned “did get me over the hurdle,” he said.
Niz said in an email, “It was a very exciting moment and the Council was very responsive to our comments. It felt as if our words helped them make their decisions and we are all so pleased to have been a part of the historic moment.”
If the council approves the second reading of the charter change unanimously, the council will need to approve an ordinance outlining how the new system will work. City officials plan to have ranked-choice voting in place in time for the 2019 municipal election.