What’s the future for ranked choice voting?

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November 20, 2013 // UPDATED 10:09 am - November 21, 2013
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

It’s all over, even the shouting about the counting. Minneapolis’ first competitive ranked choice voting mayoral race is in the books. How’d we fare?

As an RCV advocate, I see a lot to wave at haters: 87 percent of voters ranked, despite some sample ballots encouraging people not to. Despite two whole days of agony tallying the mayoral race, all winners were crowned during Election Week. (Sad reporters and political hacks sitting City Hall shiva likely forgot the fun they had on a primary night they didn’t have to work.)

There were all those candidates, though that was more the fault of the $20 filing fee than RCV. (Did you know there were 22 in the 2001 non-RCV primary?) Yeah, it slowed down the counting, but the new Council should fix that, upping the fee to $500. (Anyone low on cash can still qualify with 500 signatures — the honorable method.)

Some of you detested having to rank more than one, even though anyone whose candidate lost in a primary and then voted in the general has picked a second choice. Me, I found ranking invigorating — even though I had a favorite, I paid attention to the others, which made me think harder about what I wanted in a mayor. In this first contested citywide race of the social-networking era, I found the discussions richer, teasing out differences with allies and similarities across partisan lines.

There are some legitimate gripes. The mayor’s race and a couple of high-profile council races (Wards 9 and 13) produced winners who didn’t get a majority of cast ballots. Partly, this was because Minneapolis limited voters to three choices, unlike St. Paul’s six. More choices make it likelier you’ll have one of the two final-round candidates.

If you’re thinking, “I had trouble picking three — six would blow my mind,” remember others would like the option. A growing number of voters understand more ranking equals more power, even if lobbyists and traditional pols try to convince them otherwise.

And what about the counting? No one wants to see a 20-day count a la 2009. But we likely won’t; the city clerk’s office has the gumption, and four years, to work with ballot designers and programmers on Excel scripts that would speed reallocation, even with more choices.

Still, RCV advocates have to be honest and never again utter the phrase “majority winner” among their talking points. RCV produces consensus winners that are — in my opinion — more legitimate than traditional three-way partisan elections where a unified minority can triumph over a split majority. (Thirteen of the past 19 presidential and Minnesota governor/U.S. Senate races had plurality winners.)

Even Minneapolis’ old system — top two primary finishers in the general — didn’t guarantee majorities because we allowed write-ins. And we had to endure dismal, low-turnout primaries. Foes have harped on 2013 RCV’s inability to surpass 2001’s general election turnout (80,000 versus 89,000), but the old primaries were worse: twice under 34,000, all under 60,000, since 2001.

In 2005, one Minneapolis RCV talking point read: “The most voters pick among the most choices — the smallest, least demographically diverse pool of voters will no longer winnow choices.” Under the old system, Minneapolis’s poorest wards (5, 6, 9) had a smaller voter share in primaries than in the general. That meant they had a reduced role in picking the finalists, while the richest “fertile crescent” wards (Southwest’s 7, 10, 11 and 13 and southeast’s 12) had greater influence. In 2013, the Fertile Crescent provided fewer than 50 percent of the votes for the first time this millennium. The 2009 RCV election also showed greater equity than 2001 and 2005.

And say what you will about 2013’s turnout, but would a Betsy Hodges-Mark Andrew final have been superior? Two Southwest residents? Even with competitive council races, it’s hard to believe turnout on the North Side, or citywide, would’ve been higher.

People forget, but Minneapolis’ last four non-RCV generals (1993, 1997, 2001, 2005) saw turnout fall every time. Some think the 2001 Sayles Belton-Rybak race was a high-water mark, when it was the continuation of a downward trend. There may be bigger forces at work here.

RCV has proven more costly than the traditional system, though when you hear this argument, ask how much of the cost stems from a fantastic voter education system unveiled this year. This is work the city clerk’s office believes the public sector must do every election, traditional or RCV.

I know good people who oppose RCV, but if a repeal push comes, ask who’s behind it. Lobbyists? Big money donors? Partisans who haven’t found a way to game the new system?  I think we’ll see enough common-sense process tweaks to iron out the high-profile difficulties without going back to a system where a smaller, wealthier cohort reduces choices.

David Brauer is a former Journal editor who lives in Kingfield, where he chaired the neighborhood association and farmers market boards. Find him on Twitter @dbrauer.