6 minute read

A Good Debate: More Choices, More Confusion

The best way to encourage voter participation is to keep elections simple

By Chuck Repke

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) advocates claim that changing our balloting system will increase turnout, improve minority participation, and curb negative campaigning. There is no compelling evidence that the system they advocate would accomplish any of those things. In fact, the best research, both statistical and anecdotal, shows that it does just the opposite. For far too many people, RCV is so complicated and confusing that it discourages them from turning out on Election Day.

RCV advocates talk about it being as simple as one, two, three. What they fail to acknowledge, though, is that any voting system that is so complicated that it has to be learned is both unfair and disenfranchising.

Think about it: When do you really rank anything? The next time you pick up a menu, pay attention to how you make a decision. You either see something that you instantly like and decide it’s what you want or you go through a process of elimination, deciding what you want in a series of either/ors. It’s a fair guess that you don’t decide up front that you want the linguine, but if the restaurant is out of it you will have ribs. RCV depends on informed voters who are prepared to make a series of choices ahead of time. Less informed voters, even when they do show up to vote, aren’t prepared to navigate the process. According to data from the most extensive study to date on RCV, only 67 percent of San Francisco voters polled in 2004 knew that they would be ranking their ballots. In 2005 that number dropped to 54 percent. Thirteen percent of respondents in 2005 also admitted to not understanding the process—when surveyed after they had already voted. The majority of those respondents were less educated and identified as low-income.

Even voters who think they understand RCV oftentimes don’t. It’s not unusual to read letters to the editor or hear citizens discussing how they intend to “bullet ballot” for their candidate. Bullet balloting is a tactic used by savvy voters in “pack elections” when multiple candidates are running for multiple seats (school board contests being the most prevalent example). Instead of voting for the allowed three or four candidates in these contests, some people simply vote only for their favorite candidate, just to make sure no opponent benefits.

RCV is done in a series of runoffs, yet up to 10 percent of voters think they can bullet ballot by ranking the same candidate multiple times. Making matters worse, voting machines accept these ballots, reinforcing misunderstandings and misperceptions about how RCV actually works. Failure of voters to make second choices results in their being disenfranchised in the later rounds of balloting, and it regularly results in elections with winners who have less than a 50 percent majority.

The first RCV mayoral races in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2013 had record-breaking low turnout. Participation was up a bit in 2017, but it only reached levels recorded prior to switching to RCV. The factors that impact turnout can be difficult to judge, but it’s useful to compare the 2007 and 2011 Ward 2 races in St. Paul. The two candidates who survived the primary in 2007 participated in an RCV runoff in 2011, along with a strong Green Party candidate. Though overall turnout was the same in both contests, in the RCV election turnout was up in the whiter and wealthier precincts of Summit Hill and down in the lower-income/higher-minority areas of St. Paul’s West Side. RCV advocates have no election turnout data anywhere to back their claims that it improves minority participation.

It might be great sport for a student of elections to rank their choice for Soil and Water Commissioner, but for the typical voter it only adds to their frustration with the system.

“Choice fatigue” is a real issue that impacts all US elections. A 2015 study conduced at University of California at Berkeley shows that even in a traditional election, there’s a drop-off rate from the beginning of the ballot to the end. Most noticeably, contests that are relegated to the second page or back of a ballot have fewer voters participating. Imagine if this year we were asked to vote three times for both U.S. Senate seats and three times for governor and congress members, plus state representatives and county commissioner, and potentially all of the judicial races? It might be great sport for a student of elections to rank their choice for Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, but for the typical voter it only adds to their frustration with the system.

Finally, the claim that RCV reduces negative campaigning is wholly exaggerated. The negative campaigning under RCV simply switches to political action committees that operate outside of the candidates’ control. In St. Paul, the attack on Melvin Carter by the Saint Paul Police Federation was repudiated by opponent Pat Harris’s campaign and may well have had an impact on the election. There is also no sign that it has improved debate. In fact, in the Twin Cities we have lost the one-on-one debates between the candidates for mayor and instead are faced with free-for-alls with marginal candidates, leaving no time for serious dialogue.

Nobody likes the ugliness and shallowness of our current political climate, and that has made RCV seem like a potential new way to hold elections. Unfortunately, RCV does not deliver on those promises, and, worse, it disenfranchises some voters. The best election systems are the simplest.

Back & Forth


Q: The main thrust of your argument is that RCV is difficult to understand and, as a result, is disenfranchising.

What would you say to someone who argued that it’s not the system that’s flawed but the media and other institutions that don’t fully explain the process?

CR: When you talk to the folks who advocate for this stuff, they will tell you that they spend X amount of dollars on voter education. Then, when you ask them where did they [do] this education, they say they do it in low-income and minority areas. Why do they do that? Because people don’t understand the system. Why is it important? Because if you don’t know the system, you may not use the system correctly. The best voting systems on the planet—which in most countries involves taking your thumb, dipping it into an ink well, and putting it on paper—are the simplest. That’s because the less process that’s involved, the greater the chance to have equality between all voters. When they were first proposing RCV in St. Paul I appeared on [TPT’s] Almanac. I conceded that everyone who watches Almanac would ultimately come to understand ranked choice voting. But a lot of people don’t watch Almanac.

Q: What is your view of the socalled Nader Effect, which in many ways spurred the RCV movement? The idea that people can vote their conscience, but not feel as though they’re throwing away their vote.

CR: It’s an awfully elitist position. I deserve the right to a second vote because I’m sophisticated and intelligent and discerning. I want to have the right to say I voted for a Ralph Nader–like candidate, but because he or she is ultimately not going to win, I deserve a second choice. That really is what this boils down to: It’s a very small group of people making a lot of convoluted excuses to unnecessarily complicate what should be a simple system to satisfy an educated elite— regardless of the fact that it’s going to confuse and disenfranchise many others.

I appeared on Almanac. I conceded that everyone who watches Almanac would ultimately come to understand ranked choice voting. But a lot of people don’t watch Almanac.

Q: How do you respond to those who say RCV can empower communities of color, because they can pool their votes and be heard even if their preferred candidate is considered a long shot?

CR: Well, its just doesn’t happen that way. And, locally, if you ask them where that’s occurred they’ll point to the election of [St. Paul mayor] Melvin Carter. And you can’t tell me that Carter, who was endorsed by Mark Dayton and might as well have taken the DFL primary, won because of ranked choice voting. He simply didn’t. He was the strongest DFLer of the pack. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You can’t claim that victory as being something attributed to a ranked-choice voting runoff. But that’s the kind of thing that the advocates of rankedchoice voting will claim. Ranked- choice voting had no impact on the results.

Q: In fact, it’s your view that ranked-choice voting actually discriminates against people of color. How is that?

CR: RCV presumes if the voter is aware and has the time to research a host of candidates, they can rank a ballot in their very best interest. And, hey, if someone’s vote is lost because they’re confused or make a mistake, or simply don’t participate, so be it. That’s the elitism of it. It’s like a Jim Crow law. There was actually a Jim Crow law in one of the Southern cities where citizens had to be able to name who was on the city council before they could vote in the city council race. Well, RCV is discriminating in the same way. First, you have to be prepared for the question. Second, you have to know what the answer is. Third, you have to have written it all down because no one is going to be able to do it off the top of their head, except for a very small group of privileged people. Simply put, it has a negative impact on low-income and minority communities. And the advocates know it. That’s why they target certain demographic groups for education.