Election thoughts and recommendations
October 31st, 2010

Judicial races:

For the Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals: I support all incumbents.

Ramsey County: Two contested races: Bogen v. Ireland and Leary v. Iversen. Unfortunately, I don’t know the candidates personally and from what I’ve heard, I neither love nor hate any of them. So get somebody else’s advice. Sorry.

Dakota/1st District: based on other attorneys’ advice, I support Clark over Blakely.

10th District (north and east of Ramsey and Hennepin Counties): There are 24 candidates for one position. A ridiculous situation. You can’t go wrong with two of my family law colleagues, Richard Stebbins or Mary Smits. From what I can tell, there are many other reasonably qualified people. DO NOT vote for Tad Jude or Brian LeClair, former legislators with no credentials to be a judge. DO NOT vote for Penwell who was endorsed by the Republican Party–we do not need party endorsements in judicial races. And I don’t know Robert Steigauf, but regarding judicial elections he was quoted as saying the Founding Fathers supported our right to vote–does he not know the Founding Fathers favored appointed judges with lifetime terms? I also do not support Dawn Hennessy, who along with her boss, Judge Thomas Armstrong, created this 24 candidate mess.

Judicial elections in general: People should realize there is no perfect way to choose judges. However, most attorneys in Minnesota feel we have an excellent judiciary as is. The process as it has evolved favors merit, not political skill. Once appointed, a judge who does not measure up gets voted out. I have seen it many times. But now the U.S. Supreme Court says that if a state has judicial elections, then candidates must be allowed to speak freely about issues. In other states, this has raised judicial campaigns to the ugliness that we see in regular elections–nasty commercials blackening the reputations of judges. The overall respect citizens have for judges is diminished. It hasn’t happened here yet, but it probably will, and that is why we are looking at other models for appointment and evaluation of judges. I support the concept of appointment first, then election to remove judges who fail. That most incumbents win does not bother me–in Minnesota, we don’t vote people out unless they are doing a bad job.


If we had Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for Governor where we could rank our choices, I would rank Tom Horner first. However, we do not have IRV. And all polls show that Horner has no chance to win. Because Mark Dayton supports IRV, I will vote for him. I have experience “working” with Tom Emmer in the legislature on IRV issues, namely on getting IRV-capable voting equipment and allowing local governments to try IRV. Emmer successfully blocked us from achieving these reasonable goals. The only reason Emmer has a chance to win this election is because Minnesota doesn’t require a majority. I hope if Dayton wins that we immediately enact IRV for future governor races and never have this dilemma again.

Secretary of State:

I ran for this office four years ago as an independent. Eventually I favored Mark Ritchie among the other candidates. From what I can tell he has done an excellent job and has worked very hard. I believe he has been appreciated by the election officials around the state, as compared to Mary Kiffmeyer, who they despised. Dan Severson, this year’s Republican opponent, is another Kiffmeyer, who is more interested in a Christian Right social agenda than running an efficient office. Severson is campaigning primarily on creating a Photo ID requirement at the polls, but only the Legislature, not the Secretary of State’s office, has the ability to enact such a policy. I have talked about Photo ID at length before.

Candidate selection process and California Proposition 14
June 13th, 2010

Californians have just passed an initiative called Proposition 14 which will radically change their elections. All candidates will run in a primary with the top two vote-getters moving on to the November election. Nominees of both major parties and any other candidates will be all together in the primary, rather than segregated by party as is now the case in California as well as most other states.

The supporters of this initiative (most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger) are very clear about their motives. They want to weaken the influence of parties in choosing candidates and improve the chances of moderates.



I am in sympathy with their goals. I am convinced that much of the gridlock and polarization in our politics derives from the formal and informal processes by which we reduce the field of potential candidates. If I’m right, we could improve our leadership by encouraging good candidates, discouraging bad candidates, and on election day, leaving voters with choices that reflect their values.

Assuming the initiative survives court challenges, will it work? My guess is that sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. Going from lots of candidates to just two in one primary is too abrupt. Parties will find ways to pressure their own to drop out of races, so as not to split their support.

The nightmare scenario for the parties is to have many candidates evenly matched when the other party has only two. Those two could move on to November, leaving voters with only two Democrats or Republicans to choose from. For example, let’s say 40% of the primary voters vote for Democrats, 40% for Republicans, and 20% for independents. Let’s say there are five Democrats running, two Republicans, and two Independents, and the votes split fairly equally. The two top vote-getters would be the two Republicans with 20% each, leaving no Democrat in November.

To prevent this from happening the Democratic Party would find informal ways to discourage some of the candidates, namely offering them another office or threatening to ruin them politically. This happens now, because parties don’t like contested party primaries. But it would be even more common under the initiative–at least with party primaries, they are assured of having one candidate in the fall.

When there are many candidates, there is no guarantee that one of them will be a moderate, as Schwarzenegger hopes. What if the left and right each strongly back one candidate, but the middle splits among several? Most countries elect their presidents using a process like the initiative. All candidates run together; if none has a majority, there is a runoff with the top two. Recall France a few years back when the top two vote getters were the incumbent and a Nazi-sympathizer. There were no choices for the middle in that race.

I do like the idea of an open primary. What I don’t like is being stuck with the top two, no matter how small a percentage they receive. The only other ways to winnow the field would be to have a series of primaries (like how parties endorse candidates at a convention) or to have voters rank their choices, and then eliminate candidates off the bottom until a desired number of candidates remain. I believe at least three candidates should run in November in order to keep the debate honest.

We need this additional step to assure that at least one candidate represents the center.


IRV Obstacles–written in 2006
November 13th, 2009

On November 17, 2006, the StarTribune endorsed Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for statewide elections. IRV would allow voters to rank their choices and require that the winner be supported by a majority of voters. For example, our Governor’s race would turn on the second choices of voters who chose Peter Hutchinson or other third party candidates. A different result could occur.

As a long time advocate of IRV, I applaud the StarTribune’s bold statement. But there are a few obstacles yet before IRV can be implemented in Minnesota. These involve issues of technology, policy, and politics.

Technology: Our current optical scan voting machines in Minnesota do not capture rankings. Firmware needs to be written that will collect the rankings as data. The data can then be processed by a central computer which will calculate the winner, using free, open source software already in use around the country.

We need to develop some low cost options to get firmware written and upgrade our equipment. It may take some negotiations and some effort to get a new system developed and certified.

Policy: Ranking opens the door to different approaches to our electoral process. We could retain our current primary with the addition of rankings, eliminate the primary altogether, or go to an open primary that reduces the field rather than chooses party candidates.

The most obvious option is to retain the primary as is, to nominate a single candidate from each party. Allowing rankings would improve the process by insuring that each candidate has broad support within that party. When there are four or five candidates seeking the party nod, it is possible for a less popular candidate to win if the majority splits among the other candidates. Thus, the nominee could represent an extreme wing within the party. Ranking would cure this problem.

But many have complained about our current primary system, where voters are forced to choose one party and cannot show their support for candidates elsewhere on the ballot. This requirement contributes to the polarization that we have experienced. It also can encourage malicious crossover voting for bad candidates by voters whose own party has few contested races.

One solution is to eliminate the primary altogether and have voters rank a long list of candidates of all parties in November when turnout is highest. But it would certainly be a challenge for us to enjoy and learn from the debates we rely on to get to know the candidates when there are two or three candidates from each of five or six parties. Sponsors of these debates would surely impose arbitrary criteria to reduce the field to a few contenders, which would trigger relentless protest from the excluded candidates.

Having watched these debates my whole life (and having participated in them as a candidate), I’m convinced that debates with just two candidates allow them to spew sound bites and evade issues. Debates with three usually keep all the candidates honest and are preferred. Debates with four are also good, but more candidates than that is OK for a taste, but unsatisfying for a true understanding of the issues.

For these reasons I think consideration should be given to having an open primary which reduces the field to three or four. With ranking, it is highly likely that the field will include at least one strong candidate from each major party. Moderates who don’t meet the litmus tests of the major parties will have a fighting chance to be nominated. Third parties will have to work hard and organize for their candidates to make the cut, but once there won’t face the frustration of being ignored by the media or the organizations that present the debates.

If IRV is adopted as soon as 2010, I expect it will be with Option 1, retaining the current primary structure. But I hope policy makers take a look at Option 3 as a better long term solution.

Politics: Even if the legislature passes an IRV bill, it could be vetoed by Governor Pawlenty. It appears that his party and his own candidacy have benefitted more from the current plurality rule than have any others, although this is not necessarily true in other states. Even here, conservatives could rebel from the Governor’s moderate policies and join a growing Libertarian Party which would reduce Republican percentages in tight races. A veto would appear to be an extremely self-serving act and could expose Pawlenty to the same criticism Governor Wendell Anderson suffered when he appointed himself Senator back in 1976. I believe that Governor Pawlenty will respect the legislature’s deliberations and make Minnesota once again a pioneer of better government.

E.B.White said that democracy is the recurring suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. The key words are “more than half.” For Minnesota to produce the best leadership, our governors should be supported by more than half of the voters. That’s not much to ask, even if there are a few challenges to get there.

written 11-21-06

I Couldn’t Have Said it Better
July 26th, 2009

These are commentaries that I agree with on topics beyond elections.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show–one of his best bits ever, 8 minutes long but worth it

David Souter’s speech on judicial activism

Roots of Morality–the role of evolution

We’re All to Blame for Economic Mess by Edward Lotterman

The Filibuster by Ezra Klein (amazing how we don’t require a majority to elect our leaders, but require a super majority to pass legislation–that is a recipe for polarization)

Reinflating the housing bubble by Steven Pearlstein

Taxes have a place in economic policy by Edward Lotterman

What the free market needs By Claire Berlinski

What kind of “centrism” will Blue Dogs show? Steven Pearlstein

The Limits of Power by Chuck Hagel

more to come

Judicial activism not sought exclusively by liberals
June 2nd, 2009

I recommend the Michael Kinsley piece this week on the hypocrisy of some folks who decry judicial activism.

Kinsley piece

Here in Minnesota we have the example of Andy Cilek, spokesperson for the Republican “Minnesota Voters Alliance,” who sought judicial activism to overthrow the will of the citizens of Minneapolis. These citizens voted 2 to 1 to adopt ranked choice voting in Minneapolis elections.

Of course Cilek will say that the citizens didn’t understand what they were voting for. Actually that could be said for any election. Many if not most votes are cast for people the voters don’t know or for initiatives they don’t understand. But it is perfectly appropriate for someone to vote based on recommendations of people, parties, or organizations they know or trust. You don’t have to understand the nuances of single transferable vote to know that it is a good system.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will shortly resist the temptation of judicial activism, and will find that there are no constitutional grounds to prevent Minneapolis from going forward with ranked voting.

Another example of a plea for judicial activism comes from Norm Coleman, who is hoping that the Minnesota Supreme Court applies the equal protection standard to elections in a way that has never been done before.

Arguments to invoke the Constitution in order to nullify legislation come from left and right. “Judicial activism” is bad–unless it isn’t.


Bad idea–shrinking the legislature
May 8th, 2009

Recently there have been a rash of letters to the editor calling for shrinking the Minnesota legislature.

Sure, we need ways to cut back in these tight times. But the amount of savings gained by having fewer representatives is miniscule in the context of multi-billion dollar budgets.

So then the question becomes will fewer legislators result in better government? I would argue no.

The fewer legislators we have, the more power professional lobbyists have, the harder it is for an average citizen to have a meeting with his representative, and the more campaigns will be carried out in the mass media instead of by door-knocking.

We have been compared to California, which has a smaller legislature than us despite a much larger population. Yes, and that is a large part of why California state government sucks.

As with Unicameral, shrinking the legislature is the wrong approach to improving our representation. The tragedy of the Ventura administration is that they pushed Unicameral instead of Instant Runoff Vote. Our state would be much better represented had IRV passed a decade ago. The reform we need is the one that allows the majority to prevail.

More on the right size of legislatures:




Death of Carl Pohlad
May 1st, 2009

I’ll always remember Carl Pohlad as a man who insisted on making a profit off his hobby.

To be fair, it wasn’t really greed that motivated him to be cheap with the Minnesota Twins. It was peer pressure. His fellow owners, who he loved rubbing elbows with, would have ostracized him if he didn’t press for public contribution to a stadium.

He liked to make money, and he was good at it. I have no problem with that. I am a little put off by claims that he was generous. Yes, he gave quite a bit away. But shouldn’t generosity be measured by what you have left, rather than how much you give?


The problem of undervotes
November 19th, 2008

I frequently serve as an election judge in Roseville. Sometimes voters ask if they have to vote in every race. Of course not. Of course not. Frightening. More frightening to think how many people who don’t ask the question and go about voting on every office, apparently choosing the name that sounds the best.

This is how insane people like Sharon Anderson and Jack Shepard get votes. Lots. It’s only a matter of time before another embarrassment, like Sharon winning the Republican nomination for attorney general in 1994, happens with Jack Shepard, a fugitive living in Italy.

I drafted a bill that got authored in the Minnesota Legislature last year, HF 4140/SF1582, which would require each race on the ballot to have an oval for “No Choice.” I got the idea from a book by Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote, who proposed it as a security measure, namely to prevent evil people with access to the ballot from smudging an oval in a race left blank by the voter. There were 24,806 voters who voted for president but not senator in Minnesota this year. That’s a lot of opportunities for malfeasance with a margin in only double digits.

But if you observe the Senate recount going on, you can see that there is almost no way for such a thing to happen. On election day, the voter puts the ballot in the scanner. At the end of the day, at least two people from different parties take those ballots out of the scanner and into sealed bags. They are opened at the recount center by election judges with many, many people watching. After counting they are sealed again. You would have to be David Copperfield to get a smudge on unnoticed.

Still I see a benefit to the “No Choice” oval beyond security. It validates those who want to make a mark in every race, even if they have no idea who or what they are voting for. If the lower ballot races are decided by those who really know something, we should have fewer mistakes.

Also, there have been cases of suspected unintentional undervoting, because of bad ballot design or malfunction. One bad case was in Sarasota, Florida, a few years back where the number of ballots with no vote for Congress led many to believe that the electronic machines either lost votes or confused voters. What’s baffling about that case is that the advantage of voting by computers is that they can be programmed to warn the voter of any skipped races.

We could do the same with optical scan, but so many people skip races that it would annoy them and the election judges to have their ballots pop out. Would it be less annoying to fill out multiple “No Choice” ovals for all those judges and soil supervisors?

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