Gov. Mark Dayton has called for this year’s legislative session to be an “Unsession,” a time for eliminating outdated laws and making government better, faster and simpler. As Humphrey Policy Fellows last year, we interviewed and surveyed elder statesmen and women, current government officials, activists, lobbyists, and community groups. Focusing on the legislative branch, we asked, “What has worked well in the past, what works well now and what changes could be made to create a legislature that better serves us all?”
MN’s political culture
First, several themes emerged from our interviews with 20 past and present political leaders:
On Minnesota’s governing culture: There was a general sense that Minnesota has long been a state of clean politics, generally collaborative government and strong ethics.
On positive attributes of Minnesota government: Many cited a state culture of collective action and of policy innovation, with some specifically lauding policy incubators such as the Citizens League and the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.
On what’s not working in Minnesota government: Common concerns raised by those we interviewed included the corrupting influence of money in politics, the unending election cycle, low pay for legislators, political polarization and demonization, the caucus/party system, and the proliferation of advocacy groups focusing on very narrow topics.
Ideas for structural change and legislators’ reactions
Next, we conducted a survey of the current Legislature and received a 24 percent overall response rate. Three possible structural changes received the most intense responses — either positive or negative:
Officially move redistricting responsibilities to the courts: Minnesota is not unusual in redistricting through the Legislature and falling back on the courts in cases of deadlock. However, 21 U.S. states utilize some form of a redistricting commission. Of those, 13 use them exclusively (the legislature has no role in the process); seven use commissions as “advisory committees” to the legislature; and Iowa relies on nonpartisan legislative staffers to draw the new lines.
In our survey, only 15 percent of legislators believed such a change would negatively impact Minnesota, with the majority of those responses coming from GOP House members.
“I was very surprised by this result,” remarked professor Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “It may be a good time to review the system and make any changes now, long before the next redistricting battle looms.”
Implement ranked-choice voting statewide: While RCV typically applies only to municipal election, five states allow an RCV option for overseas and military voters in some elections. Our survey responses indicate both limited support and strong opposition to a broad-based Ranked Choice Voting system in Minnesota. Over 35 percent of respondents believed that ranked choice voting would have a negative effect on Minnesota’s quality of government. But, when looking at party affiliation, Republicans opposed it at a much greater rate than Democrats.
Improvements made to Minnesota’s elections system — including allowing election officials to deliver blank ballots by email and fax, eliminating witness and notary requirements, and centralizing communications with a UOCAVA board — had a positive impact for overseas voters in the 2008 election. According to an Overseas Vote Foundation report that focused on the 2008 election, “quantitative and qualitative evidence marks Minnesota as a clear electoral success story for its absentee voters abroad.” Without a groundswell of support or compelling reasons for converting to RCV for overseas voters, it is hard to imagine such a change being adopted.
Stagger Senate terms: Twenty-eight states have staggered Senate terms. In the remaining states, all Senate seats are up for re-election at the same time. Seven states — including Minnesota — have state Senate terms lasting either two years or four years; 12 states have two-year terms.
Advocates for staggered terms argue the change would improve the institution by forcing its membership to have some political skin in the game during every election. They also contend the Senate can lose touch over four-year stretches when none of its members face the voters. Further, staggered terms can help maintain institutional memory by limiting the number of senators up for re-election during any one cycle.
Among our survey respondents, only 2 percent of House-member respondents reported that staggering Senate terms would have a negative impact. The Senate’s response differed from the House’s response, with an equal number of senators indicating that staggering the terms would either have no effect or would improve the Senate.
While we do not purport to have created a scientific process, we do believe that our findings offer a window into possible improvements to government from those who know it best. At the very least, they give us something we rarely hear: a collective opinion from our state’s legislative body.
The authors were 2012-2013 Humphrey Policy Fellows at the University of Minnesota. Their bios may be found in the full report.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary had an incorrect name for the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.
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