The people will save their government, if the government itself will allow them.
Abraham Lincoln

What races will the switch to approval voting affect?

The switch to approval voting will only affect races to fill positions for the City of Fargo itself, i.e. for the mayor, commissioners, and municipal judge.

What about adding commissioners?

2018 is shaping up to be a busy election year and, as such, there are a lot of initiatives circulating already. In order to give our initiative the best chance, we're going to hold off on trying to adding commissioners for now. One thing at a time.

How long have we been talking about this?

April 28th, 2015After a six-candidate race for a single seat, Commissioner Tony Gehrig is elected to the City Commission with 3,181 votes out of 14,591 ballots cast, receiving 21.8% of the voters' support.
June 14th, 2016After an eleven-candidate race for two seats, out of 16,857 ballots cast, Commissioners Tony Grindberg and John Strand are elected with 5,131 and 4,744 votes for 30.4% and 28.1% of the voters' support, respectively.
July 5th, 2016A proposal to study election methods is approved by the commission.
August 1st, 2016Governance and Elections Task Force is formed by commissioners Grindberg and Gehrig. This task force is made up of members of the public with the aforementioned commissioners serving in non-voting advisory roles.
September 29th, 2016First task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
October 13th, 2016Second task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
October 27th, 2016Third task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
November 10th, 2016Fourth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
November 22nd, 2016Fifth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
December 8th, 2016Sixth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
December 16th, 2016Seventh task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
December 22nd, 2016Eighth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
January 5th, 2017Ninth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
January 19th, 2017Tenth task force meeting. Members of the public attend.
February 14th, 2017The task force presents its findings and recommendations, namely approval voting and adding two commissioners, to the city commission in a lunchtime public session, recommending they be placed on the ballot for a public vote. Members of the public attend.
February 27th, 2017Commission officially receives and files the findings of the task force.
March 27th, 2017Commission asks for public comment on findings of task force; all attending members of the public who addressed the reforms asked for change to our election system and the opportunity to vote on the changes. Commission asks for more input and places another hearing on the agenda for May 8th.
May 8th, 2017Members of the public appear to speak about the proposed reforms; commission does not address the proposals.
May 22nd, 2017Members of the public again appear to speak about the proposed reforms; commission does not address the proposals.
September 11th, 2017After public pressure, commission places discussion on the agenda again.
October 9th, 2017Commission discusses the reforms, but does not open the discussion to public hearing during their commission meeting. Schedules a formal vote for October 23rd, 2017.
October 23rd, 2017Commission delays action on election reform proposals again, asking for a "public engagement" meeting.
December 13th, 2017Informational session on the reforms held at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, led by Task Force Chair Bruce Furness, Task Force Member Jed Limke, and City Commissioner Tony Gehrig. Over 50 members of the public attended. Crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of being given the opportunity to vote on the reforms.
December 18th, 2017The city commission addresses the reforms for the last time. The discussion is not scheduled during the public hearing portion of the meeting; therefore the public is barred from addressing the commission about the reforms. The commissioners discuss the proposals, but every proposal to place the reforms on the June 2018 ballot for a public vote fail. Ultimately, the city commission refuses to let the public vote on the proposals and declares the matter closed.
April 30th, 2018Reform Fargo officially files a ballot initiative to bring approval voting to Fargo's elections.
June 12th, 2018After a nine-candidate race for two seats, out of 12,184 ballots cast, Commissioners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn are reëlected with 3,998 and 3,683 votes for 32.8% and 30.2% of the voters' support, respectively.

Why not a runoff election?

Legally, in order to have a runoff election, it cannot be held for at least 95 days after the triggering election, due to the fact that the election needs to be advertised, ballots need to be prepared and sent to overseas citizens, et cetera, which will stretch the campaign season out several months. This campaign stretch will drain the resources of the candidates.

“Boo-hoo,” you say, “the poor candidates will have to spend more money.” While it’s true that cost of elections to candidates isn’t the first concern that comes to mind, consider what high costs limit: they limit the ability for all citizens to run for office.

If elections are expensive then only the wealthy (in money, free-time, or both) are able to run for office, let alone win. Keeping costs for candidates down is a necessity for a fair and open government.

Furthermore, runoffs don’t solve the vote splitting1 or center-squeeze2 issues. Runoff elections are still comprised of top vote-getters from the regular election, but this doesn’t mean that all voters would have been able to vote their consciences due to fear of splitting the vote.

Runoffs are simply a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

Why didn't the task force recommend a ward system?

The task force couldn’t decide on a ward implementation they preferred more than the others. They did conclude, and informed the Fargo City Commission thereof, that they believe wards are nearly inevitable for the city, however. While they didn’t make a specific recommendation on a system to adopt, they recommended that the commission study wards more closely and determine if Fargo should have a pure-ward system, a mixed wards and at-large system, stick with at-large, or something else.

On this issue it should also be noted that voters living in an electoral subdivision with representation that does not represent them leads to disenfranchisement and apathy. Drawing political boundaries to divide the city into wards will undoubtedly create this issue for many citizens, whether intentionally gerrymandered3 or inadvertently so. While there have been some solutions proposed to mitigate this issue, such as the shortest-splitline algorithm4, not only was this method unlikely to be utilized by the City to draw the boundaries, but any computer algorithm or independent districting commission would require input to determine what is and is not a 'good' voting district—a definition which, itself, could be surreptitiously tweaked for political gain or misfortune.

Importantly, approval voting is both flexible enough for and compatible with both wards and at-large elections, and should be used no matter what.

Why approval voting instead of instant-runoff voting?

Instant-runoff voting, or IRV, is functionally the same as a traditional runoff5 except, instead of making voters show up multiple times to vote, voters rank the candidates on their intial ballot. This ranking allows the voter to leave instructions on how they'd vote in subsequent runoff elections so they don't have to show up more than once.

Importantly, IRV suffers from every problem traditional runoffs have except for candidate and voter fatigue (i.e. excessive campaign resource drain, apathy toward continued elections, etc.)

Furthermore, while sixteen cities across the country have adopted IRV in order to improve their elections, importantly, five of these sixteen cities (31%) have repealed IRV due to a myriad of issues. These issues include ballot complexity, calculation complexity, voter confusion, and also because they’ve experienced election failures due to the fact that IRV is non-monotonic6. This means that voters can get better results by either not being sincere or not even showing up.

An election system that can punish voters for showing up is not a desirable election system.

While no voting system is perfect and all voting systems (FPTP, IRV, approval, etc.) suffer problems, the task force determined that approval voting's benefits outweigh those of both our current FPTP system and IRV, thusly recommending it instead.

Why do the results for the commission races always seem off?

The N.D. Secretary of State’s office reports percentages7 for all races, ultimately, as “number of ovals for candidate X filled / number of total ovals filled for that race” and, for most races, this isn’t really an issue that needs to be addressed.

There are two situations where the percentages provide misleading notions about the state of a race, however: races where there are very few voters who engage and multi-winner races.

For races where few voters engage, what that means is, during an election, some races will only be voted on by a fraction of the total voters, since it’s common for voters to skip sections of the ballot. Given that the N.D. SoS reports the total number of voters overall, but not the number of voters who voted in every race, this can imply that more of the voting public voted for a candidate than actually did.

For example, if the N.D. SoS reports that 10,000 voters participated in the election yet omits the fact that only one voter voted for anyone in the Fargo mayoral race, the person she voted for would be reported as winning with 100% of the vote, implying all 10,000 voters also voted for the winner. While such an extreme example has never occurred, it should be clear that this can provide a misleading result under many circumstances.

For multi-winner races, this problem is exacerbated further. Imagine 10,000 voters voting under our current system for the Fargo City Commission race which has two winners and allows voters to vote for up to two of them. If every voter each votes for both candidates X and Y together, both X and Y would win... and be reported to have each won with 50% of the vote. This is because each candidate would have received 10,000 “ovals” divided by 20,000 “total filled-in ovals”. It can be contended that both X and Y should be considered to have received 100% support of the voters, not just 50% each. Because of this issue, reports of vote percentages in multi-winner races are perceptually skewed downward.

In order for percentages for any multi-winner race to be reported in a non-misleading fashion, they should be calculated as "total-votes-for-candidate-X / total-voters-engaged-in-race" or "total-votes-for-candidate-X / total-ballots-cast".

For our ballot initiative, we've chosen to mandate that percentages be calculated with "total-votes-for-candidate-X / total-ballots-cast" for two reasons: 1) Current Cass county election equipment is not capable of providing "total-voters-engaged-in-race" and; 2) we want to shed light on the lack of engagement many races receive and fight the skew that occurs when facing the first scenario we outlined above.

Where is approval voting used?

If Fargo adopts approval voting for electing officials, our home will be the first city to do so in American history. This does not mean that approval voting is untested, however. Organizations across the country use this system for elections, from the staff senate at North Dakota State University to the student body at Dartmouth College to the Mathematical Association of America to the Texas Libertarian Party. Government elections, such as those asking the public to choose acceptable options for infrastructure projects, have also been administered throughout the United States using this system.

In addition, the State of North Dakota almost adopted this system for statewide elections in 1987—it passed the Senate but died in the House. This is not a radical idea for North Dakota and deserves to be considered for use in our community.

Who is behind Reform Fargo?

We're a team of passionate Fargo citizens from across the political spectrum who believe in these reforms. We're headed up by Jed Limke, an engineer who served on the City of Fargo’s Elections and Governance Task Force.

We're also excited to be partnering with the Center for Election Science, a nonprofit focused on using science and math to lead the way in voting method reform in order to improve our city's democracy.

How do we contact you?

You can reach @ReformFargo on both Facebook and Twitter, or by emailing us at reformfargo@gmail.com.

  1. Vote splitting is an electoral effect in which the distribution of votes among multiple similar candidates reduces the chance of winning for any of those candidates, increasing the chance of winning for a dissimilar candidate.

  2. The center-squeeze effect is exhibited when a centrist candidate on the political spectrum is squeezed from both sides by other candidates who absorb the centrist's support, leaving the centrist, although broadly appealing, unable to effectively compete.

  3. In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular group by manipulating district boundaries, making them intentionally favor some groups of voters over others. To that end it may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, or class group, or simply be utilized to protect incumbents from competitive elections.

  4. The basic concept of the shortest-splitline algorithm would be to take the entire city and iteratively split it in two based on population until reaching the desired number of wards. Each split uses the shortest bisecting line possible.

  5. Instant-Runoff Voting is a single-winner method which works by requiring voters to rank candidates from first place to last place on their ballots. When counting the votes, only candidates ranked at the tops of the ballots are counted. If no candidate reaches the win threshold (e.g. 50% + 1 vote for a single-winner race), the candidate who received the least first-place votes is eliminated from all ballots. This opens space on some ballots for lower-ranked candidates to “slide up” and then the candidates at the tops of the ballots are counted again. This process is repeated until a winner is found.

  6. A voting system that is non-monotonic is, counterintuitively, a system in which a winner can be changed to a loser by experiencing an increase in support or a loser can be changed to a winner by experiencing a decrease in support. One notable example of this failure occurred in the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, VT.

  7. Percentages as reported by the North Dakota Secretary of State's office for city commission elections from 2016 and earlier have implied less of a mandate than the commissioners actually received. It should be noted that in the 2016 election, however, neither of the winners would have received a traditional majority winning percentage even with this taken into account.


Paid for by Reform North Dakota