FAQs on ranked choice voting

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October 21, 2013
By: Cam Gordon
Cam Gordon

As this fall’s municipal election approaches, I’m getting more and more questions about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), the system we’re using to choose our next mayor, city council, and park board. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

Q: Can I help my favorite candidate by “bullet voting” for him or her? 

A: No.

What do public safety and democracy have in common? Bullets are bad for both.

 Casting a “bullet ballot” means ranking only your most-preferred candidate, and leaving your second and third choices blank.

This does not help your most preferred candidate. Anyone who tells you it does is misleading you. Either they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they are deceiving you on purpose.

Here’s why: Under RCV, your second choice is only counted if your first choice is defeated (or, in the case of the park board at-large race, already elected). Likewise, your third choice is only counted if your second choice is defeated or elected. You can’t hurt your highest preference with your subsequent rankings. It’s impossible.

This is one of the things that makes RCV different from the way we used to elect people for at-large seats in Minneapolis. In that old system, you got three equal votes for park board at-large, for instance. Each of those votes did hurt the others, and bullet voting was strategic. RCV got rid of that dynamic, and that’s a good thing.

If anyone advises you to “bullet ballot,” please think twice. They’re not motivated by the desire to fully empower voters. A “bullet ballot” will have the same effect as only voting for your first choice, meaning that your second and third choices will have no impact on the election.

Q: Isn’t the huge mayoral field Ranked Choice Voting’s fault? 

A: No.

I am convinced that the large mayoral field is due to three factors: that there is not a popular incumbent running for mayor, that many people see the mayor’s race as a way to promote themselves and/or issues they care about, and that filing for mayor only costs $20. Fair and reasonable ballot access is a good thing, but I think it’s time to raise the bar for getting on the ballot for our city’s highest office. The filing fee hasn’t changed since 1967. Back when it was set, $20 equaled $135 in today’s dollars.

Last April, I proposed to raise the filing fee for mayor to $250, with the option to gather 500 signatures instead. That proposal didn’t pass, but I plan to take a fresh look at this again later this year or next.

Q: Isn’t Ranked Choice Voting awfully confusing? 

A: No.

For voters, RCV is as easy as 1-2-3. Pick your favorite, your second favorite, and a candidate you could live with.

Even the counting system is simple, although it does takes more steps than the old “first past the post” system. And of course, when the number of voters and the number of candidates increases, the time it takes to count the ballots increases as well. When we used RCV for the first time in 2009, the City hired St. Cloud State University to survey voters. Here’s what they found: 95 percent of voters said RCV was easy to use, 90 percent said that they understand RCV perfectly or fairly well, and only 3 percent of voters said they didn’t understand RCV. This year the city has done a great job of demonstrating the counting system, both online and in person at demonstrations throughout the city.  

Q: Should I use all three rankings? 

A: Yes, but you don’t have to. If there are three candidates you support, by all means rank them. Remember, your second choice doesn’t hurt your first. By using all of your rankings, you’re maximizing the chance that you can help pick the ultimate winner.

Q: Isn’t it great that this mayor’s race has had such a positive tone? 

A: Yes!

There are two things I haven’t missed during this year’s election. The first is the low-turnout, unrepresentative primary election that used to artificially limit voters’ choices in November to only two candidates.

 The second is that we haven’t seen the sorts of nasty attacks that used to be part of mayoral races in Minneapolis. Remember when candidates used to try to win by tearing each other down, by trying to invalidate their opponents? I do. And I don’t miss it.

Politicians in Minneapolis didn’t just magically get nicer. Ranked Choice Voting incentivizes positive, issues-oriented campaigns like the one we’ve seen this year. Each candidate knows that attacking their opponents will likely turn off their opponents’ supporters – the very people they need to cast second-place votes for them in order to win.

Looking at the dysfunction and rancor at the national level, I’m glad we’re not facing that sort of election this year.  I’m glad we’re using Ranked Choice Voting. 

Cam Gordon is City Council Member for Minneapolis Ward 2, and chairs the Council’s Elections Committee.