5 minute read

A Good Debate: The More the Better

Ranked-choice voting makes elections more inclusive, competitive, and civil

By Jeanne Massey

At all levels, our political system is growing more partisan, negative, and divisive, leaving voters feeling increasingly alienated and disempowered. With nearly half of all voters sitting out the 2016 presidential election, it’s obvious something is wrong with our electoral system. Studies consistently find that an alarming number of voters no longer have faith in our democratic institutions or believe they are important. Systemic change must happen to restore voters’ faith and motivate them to participate in their own democracy.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a practical and effective response to the deep and growing problems in our democracy. It is a well-established electoral system that gives voters more choice and more power, rewards candidates who find common ground and build consensus, eliminates spoiler and wasted-vote dynamics, requires winners to earn broad popular support, and increases opportunities for more diverse candidates to run and win.

RCV fosters multiple-choice, competitive elections, which is the single biggest driver of voter turnout. It's been in use for municipal elections since 2009 and voter turnout in races using RCV has steadily increased in the Twin Cities. Voter participation saw its biggest jump in nearly two decades in 2017 when both cities held highly competitive elections.

Systemic change must happen to restore voters’ faith and motivate them to participate in their own democracy.

Maine, which became the first state to use RCV in statewide partisan races, saw similarly high increases in turnout in its June 2018 primary. And this year’s special election for mayor in San Francisco under RCV also saw nearly record-high turnout.

RCV detractors say that RCV is confusing and deters people from voting, especially in communities of color.

After nearly a decade of use in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the United States, the evidence resoundingly disproves such claims. In fact, voters find that argument insulting. In the 2017 elections, 92 percent of Minneapolis voters and 83 percent of St. Paul voters polled by Fair Vote Minnesota—across all income, ethnic, and age groups—said RCV was simple to use, and the vast majority prefer RCV to the old system.

Not only does RCV actively foster more voter engagement, but it also eliminates the dreaded vote-splitting feature of the current system and instead allows communities of color and other underrepresented groups to pool their votes on behalf of their preferred candidates. This powerful advantage, in addition to not getting weeded out in a low-turnout primary or postelection runoff, is giving new electoral opportunities to women and communities of color.

In fact, inclusivity is one of the most compelling reasons communities are making the switch to RCV. In cities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, city council diversity is historically high. San Francisco’s new mayor, London Breed, is the first African American woman elected to lead the city. Similarly, Melvin Carter became St. Paul’s first African American mayor in a highly competitive and diverse multi-candidate race last year.

In May, St. Louis Park became Minnesota’s third city to adopt RCV for municipal elections. Several other cities, including Bloomington and Rochester, are considering this option. The same is happening across the country, with Las Cruces, NM, and Amherst, MA, becoming the most recent jurisdictions to approve RCV.

The promise of RCV moving from municipal to statewide use was fulfilled this year in Maine, where voters used RCV in statewide primaries in June and will use it again in the November general election. Overcoming unprecedented pushback by the legislature and election administrators, the elections went off without a hitch.

The success of RCV in Maine has captured the attention of the nation’s largest newspapers and most influential thought leaders, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Economist, and, closer to home, the Star Tribune. Political commentator David Brooks called RCV the “One Reform to Save Democracy.” In a critical study of U.S. competitiveness, Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and business executive Katherine Gehl concluded that America’s politicaldysfunction is the single most important threat to U.S. economic progress. They name RCV as a necessary reform to reverse this concerning trend.

RCV goes to the root of the problems of our outdated and failing two-party plurality system that has led to an unprecedented era of division, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock. Allowing voters to rank their preferences is a very simple and doable change that has the power to transform our democracy for the better. Elections are more competitive and civil, and winners take office accountable to a broad swath of voters, not just a narrow base. Their reelection depends on their ability to build consensus and make policy decisions on behalf of more voters.

There is growing momentum for RCV across the country, including in Minnesota where the recent DFL primaries made clear the need for RCV. Voters wished they could have ranked their ballots and, in the end, candidates would have had more support heading into the general election.

The evidence is in and it’s time to begin work toward statewide adoption of RCV. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Back & Forth


Q: How, specifically, does ranked-choice voting decrease negative campaigning?

JM: There’s an incentive to avoid the behavior of being on a stage and attacking opponents or running negative mailing and TV ads: If you aren’t a voter’s first choice, you want to make the case to be their second choice. You may need that support to cross the finish line. So there’s a built-in, very strong, vote-getting reason to stay civil and positive and focused on messaging and what you will do once you are elected. We’ve seen this incentive have immediate impact in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and across the country— negativity and direct attacks declined sharply. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t hear some undercurrent of chatter. Where we’ve seen most of the negative campaigning happen is by outside expenditure-group attacks.

Q: And what about those outside groups? Won’t they continue to spend money and dirty-up campaigns?

JM: Well, I think a few more losses will convince them faster than anything. The strategy simply backfires—we saw that happen in the [2017] St. Paul mayor’s race, when [candidate] Pat Harris sent a negative and inaccurate mailer targeting [now mayor] Melvin Carter. It just doesn’t work. With ranked-choice voting, people feel empowered to put their votes elsewhere, and they do.

A democracy is not about only the outcome . . . Every one of those candidates brought people to the polls that would not have ordinarily gone.

Q: How do you respond to the argument that the more complex the ballot, the greater the risk of disenfranchising voters, especially in communities where there’s already a lack of voter literacy and low turnout rates?

JM: That may have been a valid concern as the system was getting implemented. And it’s a pretty commonplace worry. But as I write in my piece, that criticism has been resoundingly refuted. Voters overwhelmingly find the process simple and they like it. So where is there some challenge? When candidates are misleading voters about bullet balloting. You’ll see that in some of the Somali neighborhoods, where they have candidates running who say vote only for me. So we work with those candidates to discourage them from doing that. Ultimately, though, that’s not an issue that’s compromised the system— and we’re dealing with it. Otherwise, over the past decade that RCV has been used in various races, we’ve seen an increase in voter turnout and participation, a high number of rankings, and an increase in civility leading up to Election Day.

Q: Supporters of RCV point to the election of St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter as an example of the system’s success. Opponents of RCV say, however, that Carter would’ve won on a traditional ballot. What’s your response?

JM: This is my favorite question. A democracy is not about only the outcome—even though the outcome may well have been very different without ranked-choice voting. But let’s just assume it would be the same. Without rankedchoice voting, I can guarantee you that [all of] the five high-quality candidates in the race would not have run. Why would they run to be disqualified in an early August primary? That’s a waste of money, and people are less [likely] to go down that path. It is not worth it. But when people knew they could have a real voice until November, it made a huge difference. We had a diverse slate of candidates, ethnically and politically, in St. Paul, which led to a rich, civil debate. And all of that would have been lost if it would have simply come down to a race between Melvin Carter and Pat Harris. There would have been fewer voters engaged in the process. Additionally, there were five people throughout the whole campaign participating in debates, knocking on doors, putting op-eds in newspapers, creating forums, holding house parties, and engaging voters. Every one of those candidates brought people to the polls that would not have ordinarily gone. It was not a traditional horse race, gamed by traditional partisan interests alienating most voters, which is how it would have been without ranked-choice voting.