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Minneapolis ranked-choice voting could give independent candidates a new way to attract voters

Few would bet against a DFLer winning the mayor’s race, but the new voting system has improved the odds some for independent candidate Cam Winton.

Ranked-choice voting may be a non-Democrat's best hope for capturing the mayoralty of the Mill City.
Courtesy of MnDOT

Few would bet against a DFLer winning the Minneapolis mayor’s race in November.

Cam Winton
Cam Winton

But with ranked-choice voting, the odds have improved some for independent candidate Cam Winton, who has referred to himself as a moderate Republican and whose platform pushes such conservative policies as improving the business climate and the efficiency of city services.

The city’s ranked-choice voting uses a nonpartisan ballot ranking that allows a voter to choose a first, second, and third preference for mayor. As Community Voices contributor Jeffrey Peterson explained on MinnPost last month:

“In a single-seat election, if no candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of first choices, the least popular candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots get reallocated to remaining candidates based on their voters’ next choices. This process continues until one candidate earns a majority of support.” 

“That’s an advantage to a Republican or independent,” observes Walter Rockenstein, the Republican City Council member who represented the city’s 11h Ward from 1974 to 1983 and now supports mayoral candidate Jackie Cherryhomes, a former City Council president. “It allows a voter to say, ‘I don’t have to, quote, throw away my vote away for an independent.’ ”

Former City Council Member Steve Minn, an independent, agrees, up to a point.

“With instant runoff voting, the voters are really empowered to pick a candidate they like,” he said.  “You can pick your candidate of choice and a safe candidate and not waste your vote.”

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Where a candidate like Winton falls short, Minn opines, is being, thus far, unknown.  “Instant runoff is name recognition, not party affiliation,” Minn said. Furthermore, “the second- and third-place votes tend to follow the trend of the top vote.”

In the current field of mayoral candidates, Cherryhomes and the three current City Council members — Don SamuelsGary Schiff, and Betsy Hodges — have established credentials as city officials. And Mark Andrew is a former Hennepin County commissioner. Their names offer a comfort level that could persuade a voter to pick three from a familiar field.   

But Winton sees ranked-choice voting as a plus, and a big one.

“It’s an absolute game-changer,” he said. “Ranked-choice voting is a wonderful development for someone who wants to bring fresh thinking,” he said. “It enables someone like to me to build coalitions across the political spectrum.”

Rockenstein believes such coalition-building is doable but difficult.

“The traditional Republican Party has gone so far to the right, it has little or no appeal in the city of Minneapolis,” he said. “If I were running today, I wouldn’t carry a Republican label.”

The last Minneapolis elected official who did is Denny Schulstad, the retired brigadier general who, as part of his LinkedIn profile, states he is “the only Republican endorsed member of the council for the past 25 years.”

Schulstad left the council in 1997 and closed the brief chapter of Republican representation in the city of Minneapolis. In recent history, only five other council members, including Rockenstein, served as card-carrying Republican members.

There were never more than four Republicans at one time in service and, other than former radio host Barbara Carlson, the names of Charlie Hoyt, Parker Trostel and Sally Howard are not readily recognizable today.

“You are alone,” Rockenstein recalled. “And that can wear on you, because you spend an enormous amount of time forging coalitions.”

According to Rockenstein, to succeed in such an effort, Winton would need to attract what’s left of the moderate Republicans in Minneapolis and then a large percentage of the true independents, plus a chunk of Democrat voters who would find his platform appealing enough to give him a second or third placement on their ballots.

Winton said that’s the direction he’s heading, and he claims his support cuts across partisan lines.

He notes that his treasurer is well-known and respected DFLer Ashwin Madia, an attorney and Iraq war veteran who ran against Congressman Erik Paulsen in 2010.

While Winton welcomes partisan support, he shuns partisan endorsement.

“I will not seek or accept the endorsement from any party,” he said. “If anyone tried to give me an endorsement, I would respectfully decline it.”

Independent Minn, who in the past belonged to the Independence Party and the Reform Party, dismissed the value of endorsement for any mayoral candidate. “In today’s world, it’s just about impossible to marshal a party system, so you build your campaign around a candidate,” he said.

And, with the new world of ranked-choice voting, a campaign is not a win-or-lose proposition. Now, a Minneapolis candidate can present himself or herself as a viable No. 2 or 3 for a voter who might want to hedge a bet.