There are some possible options to counter nasty campaigns in Minnesota

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Reflections from my Notebook

The 2018 midterm election is over, in most cases at least, as ballots were cast between the time this newspaper was printed and the polls closed. By the time you read this, there may still be races too close to call, but generally the outcome should be known.

This year’s election has shown some seemingly contrasting trends. Many people are relieved to have it end as the campaigning became nasty. On the other hand, there appears to be more interest in this non-presidential election than ever as early voting trends were setting records, not just in Minnesota, but across the country.

It’s tough to predict if there is going to be a blue or red wave — or neither. However, with the partisan rancor getting worse by the year, it seems our system would be better served by giving people more choices. Not everything is black and white, us and them, right and wrong.

The rules discourage minor parties, though. For one thing, only the major parties in Minnesota get public subsidies, which can provide significant advantages, and they are the only parties to get automatic ballot access. Minor party candidates must petition to get on the ballot, which requires getting hundreds or even thousands of signatures.

Minnesota hasn’t had any but the two major parties since the 2014 election when the Independence Party polled just 4.9 percent to lose major party status. The party rose to prominence under former Gov. Jesse Ventura and in 2010 Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner gained 12 percent of the vote.

The Libertarian Party of Minnesota achieved 2.1 percent and 3.9 percent in the last two elections.

In Minnesota, candidates for a party have to poll 5 percent to reach major party status. That is more than twice the level of neighboring states. In South Dakota, the standard is 2.5 percent while in North Dakota and Iowa it is 2 percent and in Wisconsin just 1 percent.

However, it would be up to state officials to make a change and with the extreme partisanship taking hold, it is unlikely the Legislature will make any change as it could threaten power of one party.

If more parties were allowed to participate, perhaps ranked-choice voting would keep the rhetoric gentler.

In the spring primary election, Maine became the first state in the United States to use this system, in which voters rank a field of candidates from top to bottom. This alternative is a fairer way to choose our elected officials because whoever wins would have the support of the majority of voters, not just an electoral plurality.

If no candidate gets 50 percent or more of the first-choice votes, then the last-place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes go to the second choice listed on that candidate’s ballots. The process then repeats until one candidate reaches a majority of votes.

The Maine experiment worked well, with none of the predicted problems surfacing. Instead, it resulted in greater voter engagement and less bitter campaigning. Candidates are more likely to be positive because they don’t want to offend people who are picking second and third choices.

Ranked-choice voting also helps alleviate the worry that a minor party candidate would siphon off votes from a major party candidate who may have some similar views.

FairVote Minnesota, which is pushing this method in the state, notes that the system would also work in primary elections where a hotly contested race could end up with a party candidate getting a small portion of the vote. Some Congressional races had parties with five candidates this year and even the DFL governor race had three strong candidates.

The organization also notes that the current system reinforces negative campaigning and outside influence by outside expenditures.

“Under our plurality, winner-take-all system, negative campaigning works. It is especially effective in head-to-head races,” according to a statement by FairVote Minnesota.  “Under our current system, the influence of PACs also goes a long way by aligning with a small fraction of voters. Their single most successful strategy is to raise and spend a lot of money on negative mailings and television ads.”

Tim Penny, a former congressional representative and now CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, contributed to the group’s statement as he is a strong proponent of ranked-choice voting.

Again, the politicians in power have the say in this matter and likely won’t be interested in a change unless people make a plea. So instead of shaking your head at the nasty campaigning you just experienced, take some time to suggest other options to the people who ended up on the winning side Tuesday.