Last November, 35 candidates ran for mayor of Minneapolis under a ranked-choice voting system. It took 33 rounds of vote counting before a winner was declared.
One would think with 35 candidates in the race, it could get nasty, with many candidates going negative against the perceived front-runners. That never happened, and ranked-choice voting is widely credited with keeping the candidates focused on their vision for the city instead of knocking their opponents.
We are now heading into another traditional election process in which the various parties hold primaries to choose their nominees, and then the survivors go at it hammer and tong. By November, many voters will believe, based on the negative advertising, that the republic is doomed no matter for whom they vote.
Reviewing the results from last year’s municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul, however, the campaign atmosphere suggests there may be a better way to restore the balance between positive and negative politics. Candidates seeking election under a ranked-choice voting system will try to avoid offending those voters for whom they may not be the first choice, but for whom they would be an acceptable alternative.
Under ranked-choice voting, voters would be able to rank the candidates by their own preference. Here’s how it would work: If three candidates were in a race, and respectively, Candidate A was the first choice of 40 percent, Candidate B was the first choice of 35 percent and Candidate C were the first choice of 25 percent, once it was determined that no candidate had 50 percent of the vote, election judges would redeploy the votes of the candidate with the fewest votes to the second choice of those voters. If those second-choice votes broke so that 60 percent of Candidate C’s votes went to Candidate A and 40 percent for Candidate B, Candidate A would win with a vote total greater than 50 percent.
Under the traditional primary system, a small group of voters end up choosing the party nominees. In recent years, turnout for primaries statewide in Minnesota has been around 18 percent of all eligible voters. Assuming that there is an equal turnout of DFL and Republican primary voters, that means that only 9 percent of all voters are choosing a party’s nominee, and need only a majority of those, or less than 5 percent to win a primary.
The result has often been that extreme candidates are able to move forward. Although the majority of voters are near the center of the political spectrum, they may be forced to choose between extremists, and thus become disengaged from the political process.
As it is, it has been 20 years since Minnesota last elected a governor with at least 50 percent of the vote, the longest such period in state history.
On the other hand, ranked-choice voting forces candidates to campaign more to the center. In our three-candidate example above, if the candidates are respectively a conservative, moderate and a liberal, the candidates will have to be careful what they say about each other, knowing that being the second choice behind one of the other two candidates may make the ultimate difference.
A second solid reason why ranked-choice voting deserves more consideration is that it eliminates primary elections, saving substantially on cost.
That said, ranked-choice voting was approved by city charter amendment in St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2006, but is not in use elsewhere in Minnesota. While the concept has some support in both the DFL and Republican parties, state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, refused to hear a bill in the last legislative session that would give local governments the option to use ranked-choice voting if they so desired. Sieben thinks ranked-choice voting is too difficult to grasp. She said, “If you have to have an informational session to tell people how to vote, it’s too complicated.”
A seminar is unneeded. A post-election poll found 95 percent of Minneapolis voters thought ranked-choice voting was either “very easy” or “easy.”
A more likely hang-up to gaining legislative support is that ranked-choice may adversely affect some legislators, were it to apply to state government elections. In those districts dominated by one party, which is to say most of them, an extremist could easily defeat a moderate in a traditional primary, but would be threatened if the moderate were the second choice of the heretofore minority party’s candidate. Ranked-choice changes the whole dynamic.
Because it would change elections so significantly, we do not yet advocate applying ranked-choice voting to all elections statewide. The next step ought to be to give local governments an option to use it. If there are flaws in the software used to count the ballots, for example, better to discover them in jurisdictions where hand-counting the ballots is not an overwhelmingly expensive task.
However, technology now makes it possible to elect candidates who are acceptable to a majority of voters and identify the winner quickly. Instead of using the traditional system that hands victory to some candidates even though they have less than majority support, Minnesota should let local governments have the option to use ranked-choice voting.
This editorial comes from the ECM Editorial Board. The Record is part of ECM Publishers Inc.