Commentary & Analysis

Fargo’s Second Approval Voting Election Runs Smoothly

By Aaron Hamlin

The election itself—as approval voting usually is—was mostly uneventful. Approval voting lets voters choose as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most votes wins. That’s it. For many Fargo voters, this was their second go at it.

Perhaps the only catch was that the North Dakota Secretary of State continued to report the approval percentages incorrectly despite a statute specifying how to do it. Approval voting election results are supposed to be shown as: (# candidate approvals / # ballots cast). This lets everyone know the percentage of voters who approved each candidate. Instead, for the second election in a row, the results were shown as: (# candidate approvals / # all candidate approvals). This doesn’t provide a meaningful number other than to say the order of support for each candidate.

St. Louis, which also uses approval voting, demonstrated the correct approach on its first try last March. Because we don’t have the exact turnout for the Fargo mayoral election, this article uses a popular ordinance measure to estimate votes cast as 15,090. This was a measure for term limits, which passed by 80%.

And to be fair to the Fargo elections team, the hardware they’re using apparently doesn’t make the process simple. That said, they’re endeavoring to show the results correctly a week or two after the election.

While there were seven mayoral candidates this time around, a consensus winner easily emerged. Incumbent mayor Tim Mahoney won in a landslide with twice the support of his nearest competitor, Arlette Preston. Importantly, the remaining candidates got their due as well. This is a unique feature of approval voting. If this were choose-one voting, other candidates’ support wouldn’t have been clear at all.

We see as well that voters approved, on average, 1.58 candidates per ballot. That allowance for additional votes is what makes it possible for the other candidates to see their true support. Approval voting illuminates voter intent far more than the mere selection of a winner.

The Commission race was also straightforward.

Unlike the 2020 election, the winners of the Fargo Commission race didn’t surpass 50% approval. As readers of our work may know, no voting method can guarantee a majority when there are more than two candidates. With all that said, the two winners, Denise Kolpack and Dave Piepkorn, had marginally more support than their nearest competitors. The middle of the pack of candidates also had their support clearly shown with some of the less popular candidates towards the end.

 The average votes per ballot for the city commissioner race was about three. For comparison, the previous limit would have been two and the average votes per ballot would have been a little under that since voters could vote for fewer candidates if they liked. Removing this limit allows the voter to  see distinctions among the candidates in a way that is accurate. This freedom is a central benefit of approval voting.

Beyond improving the individual voter experience, approval voting can also change the way candidates and their supporters interact with the electorate and with each other.

Afternoons Live with Tyler Axness interviewed Jed Limke from Reform Fargo for his perspective on the election. Jed noticed that some doorknockers went out sharing information on more than one mayoral and commission candidate and that there was “definitely more collaboration.”

When the WDAY Midday show asked Fargo City Auditor Steve Sprague whether they’d received many calls about the approval voting component of the election, his response was, “We really haven’t. I think it’s a fairly simple process.”

That’s just the kind of uneventful response you want from the city auditor.

Something else we kept hearing about the election was that there were a lot of candidates. When candidates aren’t afraid of splitting their support, that can happen. It’s helpful that ballot access laws for Fargo are permissive, requiring just $100 to enter. That said, this isn’t a new law, so it doesn’t explain the increased number of candidates.

We’re excited for the voters in Fargo as they model approval voting for the rest of the world. We’re also looking forward to doing some extra number crunching in the background as we gather more data. Sometimes the best sign of something working is that you don’t hear much commotion. Here, approval voting just went in and got the job done.

Aaron Hamlin is a co-founder of CES, and served as its Executive Director from 2011 to 2023.