Last month, Minnesotans again led the nation in voter turnout. The state’s strong performance is one measure of civic success, but in others Minnesota still has room for improvement. Here are some areas the new Legislature should prioritize that would strengthen our democracy.
Adopt ranked choice voting
Minnesota has one of the strongest traditions of third-party success in the nation. Before it merged with the Democratic Party, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party elected a legislative majority, three governors and several members of Congress. More recently, Jesse Ventura was elected governor on the Reform Party ticket, and his Independence Party successors were legitimate contenders.
In today’s polarized environment, third parties in the state are effectively dead. Rather than offering a credible alternative to voters, third-party candidates — often explicitly backed by Republicans — mainly act as spoilers who peel away votes from the DFL without seriously contending to win.
Ranked choice voting would fix this by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. With ranked choice voting, if no candidate earns a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to those voters’ second choices and so on, until a candidate earns a majority and wins. Ranked choice voting solves the problem of third-party candidates siphoning votes away from ideologically similar candidates and gives voters freedom to support a third party without wasting their vote.
Reform the redistricting process
Each decade, states redraw their congressional and legislative maps to account for population changes. In Minnesota, the Legislature is supposed to draw maps that are signed into law by the governor. Over the past 50 years this process has been a predictable disaster, with Republicans and Democrats unable to agree on new lines, resulting in maps drawn by court-appointed panels.
Just as it did a decade ago, this year’s court-appointed panel drew maps with minimal changes. According to the panel, map drawing is a legislative task, so rather than redrawing the maps from scratch, the panel simply took the existing districts and tweaked them as necessary to account for population changes.
As a neutral method of engaging in a political task, “minimal changes” is a good approach on paper. But in practice, starting with outdated maps and doing as little as possible to fix them — without taking into account changes in the state’s political geography — can produce unfair results or “unintentional gerrymanders.” According to experts, Minnesota’s new congressional map is more biased in favor of Republicans than the maps in Kentucky, Kansas and Mississippi — states where Republicans passed maps along party lines.
Minnesota should follow the lead of states like Alaska and Michigan and establish an independent redistricting commission that would either replace the Legislature’s role or act as a fallback in case the Legislature fails to enact maps. The commission could be empowered to draw new maps that not only apply traditional redistricting criteria like compactness and adherence to the Voting Rights Act, but also ensure that each party’s power is consistent with its popular support.
Join the Effort to End the Electoral College
Because of the Electoral College, two of the past four U.S. presidents have been elected despite receiving fewer votes than their opponent. This is unfair and inconsistent with the Framers’ original vision for a deliberative electoral system. The modern Electoral College — where most states award all their electors to the candidate who wins a statewide vote — focuses disproportionate attention on a few critical battleground states and produces results that semi-regularly contradict the will of the people.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an existing agreement among states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote. Unlike efforts to abolish the Electoral College with a constitutional amendment, which for now are unrealistic, the agreement would automatically go into effect once states representing 270 electoral votes sign on. So far states representing 195 have done so. By joining this agreement, Minnesota could take a step towards creating a fairer system.
Minnesotans have given the DFL unified control of the government. In the upcoming session, the party should take this opportunity to enact modest but meaningful reforms that will preserve and build upon the state’s democratic institutions.
Simon Barnicle, Eagan