| Brad Johnson ∙ Watertown Public Opinion |

An election reform group called Ranked Choice South Dakota is working to convince the Legislature to grant local governments more freedom in how they conduct elections.

Speaking to the Watertown Rotary Club on Thursday, Sioux Falls lawyers Joe Kirby and Dave Knudson advocated for legislation to allow ranked choice voting where voters could rank candidates in order of preference.

We are out educating people. This is a very bipartisan effort.

The system likely would make the most sense in municipal elections, school board elections and presidential primaries, they said.

This would apply particularly to races where there are more than two candidates, such as in recent Sioux Falls mayoral races.

A voter would select their favorite candidate and then rank others on the ballot.

If no candidate received 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated and those votes reallocated to other candidates in order of preference.

That would continue until one candidate eventually surpassed the 50% mark to win.

Already 27 states allow local governments to use it if they choose. Utah, a conservative state, recently passed legislation allowing it and 23 cities there plan to use it in the next election.

“All we are asking (the Legislature) for is increasing freedom,” Kirby said, “the freedom to try it.”

That should be easy in a state where its political leaders loudly trumpet our freedoms and lack of government regulation.

Kirby said ranked choice voting would prevent costly runoffs as well as reducing negative campaigning.

“There is an increasing tendency for negative campaigning,” Knudson said. “In a ranked choice system, you have to be more worried about offending your opponent’s voters, so there will be a little more civility.”

Knudson, a former Republican state senate majority leader, ran for governor in 2010. He lost in the primary to Dennis Daugaard.

Knudson said he is certain “negative campaigning has driven down voter participation.”

Kirby said legislators should not fear that ranked choice voting would threaten their jobs as the proposal calls simply for giving local governments the option.

“All we want is permissive legislation,” he said. “Why can’t we try it?”

Knudson noted that six conservative southern states allow U.S. service members to do ranked voting. In the event there is a runoff, it is unlikely overseas ballots could be returned in time for the next election. This way, their votes would count in a runoff.

It is possible ranked choice could have changed a recent Sioux Falls mayoral election, the two men said.

In the 2010 mayoral race Councilman Kermit Staggers, a very conservative Republican, won 24.88% of the vote, while liberal Democrat Michael Heuther won 24.71%. Both had strong base support, but probably not broader appeal.

The three candidates deemed moderates– Vernon Brown, J. Pat Costello and Bill Peterson — combined for about 40% with Brown having more than 20%. It is very possible one of those three would have had enough second- or third-place votes to elevate them above Staggers or Heuther, who faced off two weeks later with Heuther winning.

Kirby said the system would not be open to voter fraud.

“It’s neutral,” he said. “We know South Dakota has great election laws, and we know our elections are legitimate. This just offers us a better choice.”

Minneapolis is the nearest major city that will use ranked choice voting in its Nov. 2 election. In the mayor’s race, 17 candidates have filed to run. The votes will be tallied until one candidate reaches 50%. A winner will emerge without a runoff.

St. Paul, Bloomington, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park also use the system in the Twin Cities.

Knudson and Kirby admit that legislators haven’t been lining up to sponsor legislation, probably because the idea is new, and they have their hands full with marijuana and other issues. So, they are taking the time to slowly build statewide support.

“Our goal is to raise awareness,” Kirby said. “We are out educating people. This is a very bipartisan effort.

“Politicians currently aren’t interested,” he added, “but they will be if more and more people are talking about it.

Brad Johnson is a Watertown businessman and journalist who is active in state and local affairs.

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