City council agrees – election procedures should stay the same

By Stefanie Donahue

The chances of Blaine City Council adopting ward-only voting procedures are slim.

After listening to a presentation about the state voting rights act by city attorney Jon Sitkin on May 29, the council voted 6-0 absent councilmember Meg Olson to take no action on a proposal to change voting procedures to allow city council candidates to be elected exclusively by voters in their ward.

State legislators passed the voting rights act during the 2018 session. It goes into effect on Thursday, June 7 and aims to provide equal opportunity for racial and other minority groups to participate in elections.

“Your legislature intends to allow a process for local governments who have the ward-based primary with the general population voting at the general election to modify their system to avoid the deleterious effects that could result, or effects of polarized voting, or biased systems that are discriminatory on the race, color, language protected classes,” Sitkin said to the council. “I want to say that I’ve not seen or been aware of any kind of allegation that the city of Blaine has any voting system that violates or infringes on the rights of a protected class, race, color, language.”

Blaine is split into three wards, which are each represented by two councilmembers; one additional councilmember is elected at-large. Current election procedures require a preliminary, ward-only election in which candidates run in one of the three wards. The two candidates to receive the most votes move on to the general election, which is open to all city voters.

Changing the city’s voting procedures has stirred some debate between residents – with some saying ward-only voting encourages councilmembers to act only in the interest of their ward, as opposed to the city as a whole, and others saying the current system poorly represents all voters.

Dennis Olason, a longtime advocate of ward-only voting and former city councilmember, said his primary concern is vote dilution, which occurs when voting procedures minimize the value of a vote from racial or other minority groups. From Olason’s perspective, the city’s current election procedures dilute the vote within a ward. 

In an email, Olason said, wards can effectively block the election of a candidate favored by the voters of a specific ward. Thus, if voters in the other wards find disfavor with a candidate for whatever reason, they can by voting for his opponent, determine the outcome of the election in that ward.

Citing the state voting rights act, which upholds the principle of “one person, one vote,” Olason told the city council, “When wards select their candidates, their vote gets diluted by two-thirds in the general election. You’re supposed to have one person, one vote.” He later added, “I was really concerned that it didn’t come up.”

Mayor Bonnie Onyon said, “I believe the city as a whole should have the opportunity to vote for a candidate, while they may live in a different neighborhood, a different ward … I think every councilmember should have the entire city in mind.”

Councilmember Alicia Rule echoed Onyon’s sentiment in an email, “With a town as small as Blaine, the system we have now allows a good balance … By allowing the entire town to vote on all the final ward candidates we come together as a community to choose our leaders.”

Per state law, a city must issue a public notice and hold a public hearing before adopting new voting procedures by ordinance.

Olason expressed hope that the city council would revisit the idea of adopting new voting procedures. “Let’s let the people of the wards decide,” he said.

Ed. Note: This story has been updated.

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