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

Will these changes affect Fargo's school and park board races?

No, these changes will only affect races to fill positions for the City of Fargo itself, i.e. for the mayor and commissioners.

Why wasn't a runoff election recommended?

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, the task force's recommendation of 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?

First, a primer on what IRV (also called ranked choice voting) is:

IRV 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 top of the ballots are counted. If no candidate reaches the win threshold (50% for a single-winner race - for multi-winner races a similar ranking method called single transferrable vote, or STV, could be used instead), 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 ballots are counted again. This process is repeated until a winner is found.

Instant runoff voting is a fine system and a definite improvement over what our city currently uses (first-past-the-post, awkwardly abbreviated FPTP), but the task force contended that approval voting is both an easier and better step forward for our city.

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, tabulation complexity, voter confusion, and also because they’ve experienced election failures due to the fact that IRV is non-monotonic5. 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 percentages6 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 infer 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 how the N.D. SoS reports results, this can imply that more of the voting public voted for a candidate than actually did.

For example, if there were 100 ballots total in an election yet only one voter voted for the Fargo mayoral race, the person she voted for would be reported as winning with 100% of the vote. While such an extreme example has never occurred, it should be clear that this can provide a misleading result under some circumstances.

For multi-winner races, this problem is exacerbated further. Imagine 100 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 won with 50% of the vote each because each would have received 100 “ovals” divided by 200 “total 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".

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 people from across the political spectrum who believe in these reforms. Our chair is Jed Limke, a mathematician and engineer who served on the City of Fargo’s Elections and Governance Task Force. We believe in the work the task force did and the reforms it proposed, so we've crafted and wholly paid for this site personally and voluntarily to continue to advocate for them.

You can reach @ReformFargo on both Facebook and Twitter.

  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. 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.

  6. 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.