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Reform Fargo’s city elections

The good news is that the Fargo City Commission will proceed with a study of city election reforms in the wake of last month's balloting in which city commissioner winners, former state Sen. Tony Grindberg and former Fargo School Board member John Strand, received 16 percent and 15 percent of the vote, respectively. They are a tad chagrined by their "landslide" wins.

The not-so-good news is the possibility the commission might recommend adoption of old-style wards, a system rooted in the industrial cities of the East, where ward-based political corruption and cronyism are art forms. And where, if corruption is not endemic, special-interest parochialism is. Note the perennial dysfunction in Moorhead, no matter who sits on the City Council there.

Among the other considerations is a return to a runoff, which was the way Fargo elections operated until 2000, when voters scrapped the runoff by changing the City Charter. Any future change would require a vote to update the charter.

A runoff to get winners to 50-plus percent of the vote culls the field, but voter turnout falls off. Without a runoff in the last few elections, winners garnered only as much as 25 percent of the vote, and as little as 15 percent. No matter how the numbers are parsed, winners have not received anywhere close to a majority of the vote. A runoff eliminates that problem.

If wards are debated, every effort should be made to avoid small, discrete enclaves with unique characteristics. That's a recipe for petty conflicts over small stuff. That's a guarantee of commissioners or council members narrowing their focus to get re-elected from a ward, rather than viewing the city's progress, potential and problems as elements of the big picture.

But if wards are an option, a modified model might work best for Fargo. For instance, instead of several small wards, the city could be divided along a north-south axis and an east-west axis that would create four voting districts of equal population. Or better still, the city could be divided into three large districts divided by east-west boundaries — a north, central and south with equal as possible populations in each. With either option, the districts would be large and diverse enough to reflect the city's character as a whole, rather than the provincialism that attends small wards. As population shifted, lines could be adjusted to ensure equal representation.

Given the less-than-satisfying results of the last two city elections, an election reform study makes sense. The city has changed since a charter vote eliminated the runoff. Fargo's election system should catch up with the change.

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