So St. Paul’s mayor reads a book and finds out that free parking on commercial streets like Grand Avenue costs the rest of the city a lot of extra money. He actually already knew that, but the book helps everyone understand how this cost transfer works. He then proposes putting parking meters on Grand Avenue, a street draining street maintenance funds for everyone. Not surprisingly, people and storeowners in the area oppose the idea. What is surprising … the boorish, low-class, disrespectful manner that people in opposition expressed themselves. Longer-time observers, like me, remember when Minnesotans would only use interrupt and shut-down-the-meeting tactics for really big issues. Now we’re doing it for parking meters? What’s that about?
Could it be it’s about Minnesota catching up to the rest of the political system in the U.S.? Most visitors watching Minnesota’s political and civic conversations in the past would leave town telling us that “Minnesota Nice” actually did exist, that people here were much more willing to face and discuss issues civilly than in other parts of the country. If “Minnesota Nice” in politics is a good thing, we’re losing it fast.
We may be learning from the top. The leading presidential candidate of one party refers to a woman he doesn’t like as a “fat pig.” In Minnesota such a remark would have ended a political career, but maybe now it would be OK?
Extremes often prevail in primaries
A major reason for our collective political disrespect is the primary/general election system currently common in the U.S. Primaries are low-turnout affairs where the extremes often prevail. Extremists, of course, have difficulty getting beyond the primaries because the majority of people in the general election think their ideas are cuckoo, which means that in order to win when there are only two candidates left, the task for candidates is not to get people to vote for them and their nutty ideas, the task is getting people to vote against the other candidate. If the public actually understood what you support, they would go bonkers. Campaigns have to be negative to be successful, which also means that success is not predicated on, or even correlated with, telling the truth or making reasonable proposals. Success often comes to those who bark loudest and hate hardest.
Much of this hasn’t been true in Minnesota. Research shows our campaigns are not yet as negative as in other parts of the country. But we’re getting there. And St. Paul’s parking meters are an example of how we might soon see further growth.
Ranked-choice voting can help all of this because it so fundamentally changes the nature of political campaigns. Instead of head-to-head “who are you going to vote against” elections, in an RCV environment there are a number of potential candidates from whom the electorate gets to choose. The question is not “Which of these two candidates do you like the least?” Instead, the question changes to “Which of these five or 10 candidates do you think can do the best job?” and, most important, rank them. In RCV elections, negative campaigning hurs whoever’s responsible for it.
Resistence in Duluth from party leadership
Political party and campaign experts don’t like ranked-choice voting, so it’s not yet thought of in partisan elections, for the Legislature, Congress, etc. But in Minnesota, parties have had a pretty firm grip on the local election process, even though local elections are technically nonpartisan. RCV has been instituted in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but is facing resistance from some party and union leadership in Duluth, where it will be voted on next week (Nov. 3).
Some party leaders in the Twin Cities are rethinking their RCV support as well. Prior to RCV the real council elections in the large cities were held at the DFL endorsing conventions. Without DFL endorsement, candidates had little chance to win. Now, DFL endorsing conventions are ending without clear winners. The public, instead of the party, gets to decide who wins. That phenomenon — giving power to the voters — is making Duluth party leaders work hard against RVC.
In St. Paul’s Ward 2 the campaigns seem to have caught on to the idea that negative campaigning in an RCV election can backfire, but independent expenditure groups backing the two leading candidates haven’t; their badly done negative ads could hurt their candidates, even though the candidates themselves aren’t doing them.
Let’s hope Duluth passes RCV next Tuesday. And let’s hope that activists longing for the good old days when they got to pick the candidates don’t overturn RCV in Minneapolis and St. Paul. No kidding, letting the public have a say isn’t really all that awful.
Wy Spano is the director of the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at Metropolitan State University.
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