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Approval voting in Fargo: Correcting the record

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Fargo, North Dakota achieved a feat of electoral reform when it became the first city to implement approval voting in the US. It has since conducted two municipal elections with the method, in 2020 and in 2022. Both times, election authorities have failed to correctly publish the voting results, and unofficial estimates have widely spread incorrect figures. With Fargo’s next election to take place on 11 June, it is imperative to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated. We at Institute H21 are attempting to correct the record. We thus present the case, the methodology for finding Fargo’s approval voting results, and the correct approval voting results for Fargo’s Mayor and City Commission elections in 2020 and 2022.

The need for accurate data

Voting method reform is a long-fought and hard-won battle. The public is right to scrutinize any changes to democracy, even overwhelmingly beneficial ones, making substantial time, resources, and information required to win support. Even after implementation, new voting methods must be continually bolstered and defended in the public eye, lest issues of trust or legitimacy emerge. They cannot properly serve democracy otherwise. 

In Fargo, we see the failure of election authorities to publish correct approval voting results as a potential threat not only to local election integrity, but also to the progress of voting reform efforts more broadly. Despite the winners of the elections being reported correctly, the percentages of their wins being wrong — and especially the framing of those incorrect percentages — are misleading. Approval voting was introduced in Fargo largely to give the people a more accurate representation of support for the candidates. Although this has been achieved in terms of voter expression, it has demonstrably failed in result reporting. 

The most significant data error is found in the 2020 City Commission election. Too few ballots were used to calculate the approval vote percentages for candidates, inflating the winners’ results to show over 50% support. In reality, neither winner crossed this benchmark. While 50% may feel like a significant and exciting threshold to cross, majority support is neither a defining aspect of approval voting nor a condition of its success. It is not necessary from an electoral studies perspective to show that approval voting improved the representative quality of Fargo elections. Publicity that focused on the 50% benchmark rather than the actual merits of approval voting could have set a poor example even if the 2020 data had been accurate, just by reinforcing the misperceived importance of a majority percentage that many approval voting elections will not reach. Given that this election also did not see any candidate reach 50%, we would like to underscore that the revised data is not evidence against approval voting’s utility. 

Still, the true figures are important. The public has the right to know the accurate results of their elections, and the academic study of elections must be able to examine voting methods authentically. With the false information having been not only published in a peer-reviewed journal, but echoed in such reputable sources as FiveThirtyEight and Ballotpedia, it can with honest intentions be seen and cited as credible information. We believe that it is important to address this information now not in opposition to approval voting, but to ensure that as it spreads, it is being advocated for on factual, verifiable grounds.

This document contains a detailed walkthrough of how to calculate the correct approval voting results with information available on the Fargo Secretary of State website: Fargo ballot count walkthrough.

Approval voting in Fargo

Before 2020, Fargo’s municipal elections had long implemented one-round plurality voting that routinely produced winners with only small minorities of support. In the 2016 race for City Commission, a contest for two open seats, eleven candidates were on the ballot. The winners earned 16% and 15% of the vote, barely beating the next runners up with 14%, 13%, 12%, and 12%. These results left the two winners with a precarious mandate; both stated that they personally were uncomfortable with how few votes they had garnered to win. One commented, “It still doesn't give you the broader base of the larger vote to say ‘Yes, we believe this is where the city needs to go.’”  

This was fertile ground for the introduction of a cardinal system with multiple votes. Approval voting, which allows voters to use an unlimited number of equally-weighted votes, was championed by the organization Reform Fargo with a petition to get approval voting onto the ballot of the 2018 general election. Their campaign highlighted the issues of vote splitting, the inability to express consensus, and the detriment of strategic voting as weaknesses of plurality voting that approval voting would assuage. The campaign expressed many of the shared values and common points that we address with the D21 method, and the suitability of Fargo for a multiple-vote cardinal method was clear. 

In the time between the initiation of the petition and the 2018 referendum, another City Commission election took place, this time with nine candidates on the two-winner ballot. Again, the vote was split such that both winners earned less than 20% of votes and beat the next four runners up by less than five percentage points. These results again underscored the inadequacy of the municipal election status quo. 

The referendum for approval voting passed with 63.52% support, winning every Fargo precinct by at least 15 points, indicating popular support across demographics. Its provisions included not only the methodological introduction of approval voting, but the reporting requirement that “For each candidate’s result in each race, reported vote percentages must be calculated by taking the number of votes for that candidate divided by the total ballots cast.” 

This condition is important for properly representing the public opinion of each candidate. The percentage of votes cast per ballot indicates what portion of the electorate supports any given candidate, whereas votes cast per total number of votes will not accurately convey anything meaningful besides the names of the winner(s). In fact, as people approve of more candidates on their ballots, meaning that the chances of consensus and broader representation are rising, the percentage statistic for the winner can fall. Reporting the wrong statistic can distort public perception of the new method as having no effect.

Despite its obligation, the city of Fargo has never officially published the correct results. Moreover, they have made it difficult to independently discern the accurate results, enabling the spread of the inaccurate data. Still, the correct data is available, and between the Secretary of State and the City, it is a blatant disservice to the public that this information has not been communicated yet. 

We first began looking into this issue when reading about the results of the approval voting election in Fargo, noticing that the result percentages were unusually high. In a peer-reviewed journal article, the authors claimed that both winners earned more than 50% of votes. The citation was a blog post (now corrected, after our appeal), which in turn attributed the data to Reform Fargo, who presents a ballot count of 18,805 but does not provide a source. Most other media with incorrect data cites one of these three sources.

We found the likely source of the number 18,805 in the minutes of a Fargo City Commission meeting on June 29, 2020, elaborating on the acceptance of the vote totals to declare the winning candidates formally elected, where it is reported “Total City of Fargo Votes Cast: 18,805.” The item was neither passed individually nor specifically discussed aloud in the meeting, but it was grouped as part of a passed Consent Agenda. In the corresponding Agenda documents archived on the City Commission website, there is a letter from the City Auditor, Steven Sprague, that also presents 18,805 as the number of “votes cast” with no explicit mention of ballots. We contacted Mr. Sprague regarding this document, and he confirmed by email that this figure was “preliminary and not canvassed” and that “the State numbers would be the accurate numbers” for a ballot count. 

Understanding that the number 18,805 — which gives the winners approval percentages over 50% — was not necessarily right, we sought to verify the ballot count. The procedure described in the following section details that process. We found that the actual number of ballots in the 2020 election was 23,819; this larger divisor provides considerably different results, as shown in the table below.

Methodology to calculate the correct results

The process is described in greater detail with screenshots in this document: Fargo ballot count walkthrough. A brief summary can be illustrated with 2020 data from the North Dakota Secretary of State website. The same procedure can be followed for the upcoming 2024 election, provided that the city does not begin to offer a more direct and transparent way to collect this data. 

Ballot counts are reported by precinct, by county, as “Voter Turnout Details.” It is possible to identify the Fargo precincts in this list by exporting the data from the “Fargo City Results” races. In the downloaded Excel sheet, vote counts for each candidate in the municipal races are organized by named and enumerated precincts. Returning to the Cass County ballot count data, cross-referencing the Fargo municipal precincts allows the total sum of cast ballots to be calculated.

Fargo 2020 & 2022 approval voting election results

With the ballot totals for both 2020 and 2022, it is possible to correctly calculate the approval voting results. The graphs below present the misrepresented percentages published by the North Dakota Secretary of State in contrast with the approval percentages of votes by number of ballots cast.

Evangeline Moore

Výzkumnice / Researcher
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