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A Good Debate: Building a Better Ballot Box

On the eve of the midterm elections, one of the key campaign issues candidates are being asked to address is the integrity of the election itself.

It’s no wonder.

As Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their nominating convention in July 2016, progressive delegates there to support eventual runner-up Bernie Sanders suggested that institutional bias harbored by the Democratic National Committee cost the senator from Vermont a number of early season primaries. Republican nominee Donald Trump embraced the Sanders-was-wronged narrative on the stump and then, in the wake of his Electoral College victory over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, repeatedly made claims that three-to-five million fraudulent votes were cast, preventing him from also winning the popular vote.

These assertions regarding the general election were summarily rejected in August 2018 by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which disbanded after it couldn’t substantiate any of Trump’s claims. The topic of voter fraud soon took a back seat to front page stories asserting Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. The resulting investigation, spearheaded by special counsel Robert Mueller and still ongoing, occurs amid a partisan divide in the country that, according to data from Pew Research Center, is worse than it’s been since the American Civil War.

And for both those who think Mueller is overreaching and those who are convinced candidate Trump colluded with a foreign power, the ongoing probe is sure to influence votes in both local and national contests on November 6.

For some concerned citizens, the prospect of fraudulent voting (either because of loopholes in the law or weak enforcement) remains the number one threat to the country’s elections apparatus. Their main concerns include, but are not limited to, counterfeit absentee ballots, vote buying, ineligible voting, and, most importantly, the chance that ineligible voters will manage to vote—sometimes more than once.

Others worry that tales of malfeasance at the ballot box are a gross exaggeration that can lead to remedies—including the elimination of same-day registration and the push for government-issued photo IDs—that they argue are actually designed to discourage certain populations from voting. This anxiety has historical precedent. Until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States kept blacks and poor whites from exercising their 14th Amendment rights through the use of poll taxes (also enforced in northern states, including Minnesota), literacy requirements, intimidation at polling places, and onerous record-keeping requirements.

In Minnesota, these differences in opinion played out in the 2012 election, when a voter ID amendment to the state constitution was proposed that would have required a person to produce a government-issued photo ID before participating in municipal, state, and federal elections. Supporters argued that the minor inconvenience of such a requirement was outweighed by the promise of transparency and the rule of law. Those who fought the proposal countered that the proposition was not only an overreaction to a mythical crisis, but would disproportionately burden minority, handicapped, and older voters.

In the wake of the amendment’s defeat (46 percent for, 52 percent against), some political observers posited that because it appeared on the ballot with the Minnesota Marriage Amendment, which would have banned marriage between same-sex couples, the results were skewed. The argument being that forces opposing both initiatives pooled their resources to create a “Vote No” campaign, which conflated the issues in most people’s mind; and that, if voter ID would’ve stood alone, it may well have received majority support.

Looking forward, it is noteworthy that, according to national poll results released by the Public Research Institute in July 2018, 62 percent of Democrats say voter disenfranchisement is a bigger problem than voter fraud, while 68 percent of Republicans point to voter fraud as the greater concern.

As a result, the subject of voter ID is likely to re-emerge sooner or later in Minnesota, depending on which party controls the governor’s office and legislature. As Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, who supports voter ID, told Minnesota Public Radio in October 2017: “Because there are a lot of people that believe cheating is going on, if there’s a way to address without disenfranchising people, we ought to do that.”

Among mainstream Republicans, Donald Trump’s rise and eventual nomination came as a shock. An unconventional outsider with little political experience, he took advantage of a growing movement of increasingly vocal and active conservatives who had long been frustrated with middle-of-the road presidential candidates, including the late senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Traditional Democrats were also unprepared for the emergence of Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who was not a member of the Democratic Party until 2016.

According to a national poll, 62 percent of Democrats say voter disenfranchisement is a bigger problem than voter fraud, while 68 percent of Republicans point to voter fraud as the greater concern.

What resulted from the emergence of these two rebels was akin to a perfect storm. Stirred by a combination of populist messaging and a virulent, bipartisan dislike for candidate Clinton, Trump staged an upset. Republicans largely came home to their unconventional nominee and, in states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan, progressives and independents who believed in Bernie—especially in metropolitan areas—either stayed home or voted for a third-party candidate (in most cases, Green Party nominee Jill Stein).

So-called “spoiler” candidates like Stein are not new. After the 2000 presidential election, for instance, some analysts blamed Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush on the [Ralph] Nader effect, because the Independent managed to woo a small percentage of voters who might have voted for Gore. (The data regarding this suggestion is neither conclusive nor could it be, given the inability to guess what a voter may have done if Nader hadn’t been in the race.)

Still, the 2016 results further convinced a subset of election reformers that the two dominant political parties in the United States no longer represent a real choice. And, as a result, a growing number of citizens feel disenfranchised and either don’t show up to the polls or choose to engage in what amounts to a protest vote. If people were somehow able to act on their conscience without feeling as though they were just “throwing away” a vote, the thinking goes, they would have greater faith in the promise of democracy and be more likely to participate.

Enter ranked choice voting (RCV). Available in a handful of locations across the country—including San Francisco, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland, and the state of Maine—RCV is now used for municipal elections in Minneapolis (which first tried the system in 2009) and St. Paul (which began experimenting in 2011). St. Louis Park will roll out RCV for its 2019 elections.

FairVote Minnesota, which advocates for RCV, summarizes the methodology as follows:

If designed properly and explained simply, supporters say RCV makes elections more inclusive and representative, while encouraging civility among candidates, who are more likely to eschew negative campaigning and emphasize specific issues that could attract second-choice votes. Opponents say the process is unnecessarily complicated, caters to political insiders and, instead of being more inclusive and representative, actually decreases participation.

While the stereotypical RCV supporter is often caricaturized as a disenfranchised progressive, in Minnesota, the battle lines that have formed around the issue are not defined exclusively by ideology. During the 2018 legislative session, a bill with bipartisan sponsorship was proposed that would have prohibited ranked choice voting statewide. And because, as the Star Tribune editorial board wrote last April, “opposition to the stillnew voting method can be found among inside players in both parties,” there’s likely to be similar resistance as advocates for election reform include RCV in their arsenal of options.

The specter of faceless foreign agents huddled around a bank of glowing terminals, blithely jamming the gears of our democracy, rivals even the most titillating tales of mob collusion with John F. Kennedy in 1960 or the smoke-filled headquarters of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s party machine.

In the end, though, no matter where Mueller’s probe takes the country, historians may look back to find that one of the most significant results of his investigation was that it prompted a larger discussion around electoral fraud, voter disenfranchisement, and the future of democracy.