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Ranked choice voting is achievable and effective

Vote here sign at polling place
REUTERS/John Amis
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is the best method for electing the best possible candidates.

When a new Minnesota Legislature is gaveled into session this week, a window will briefly open in terms of our state’s ability to effect meaningful changes in our political environment. Before that window is shut by inertia, distraction or the unceasing demands of the electoral calendar, we should take up the question of how to improve the health of our body politic. Like many others, I believe an important answer can be found in the adoption of ranked choice voting (RCV) as our method of electing the best possible candidates.

Jeffrey Peterson
Jeffrey Peterson

By now, it is beyond any credible debate that our political system is in need of repair. Democrats, Independents and – especially now after the November elections – Republicans are increasingly vocal about the failings of a system that promotes divisiveness and rigid partisanship and that eschews compromise and consensus building. I say this not as a political operative but as someone who has been involved in the legislative process for many years as a private citizen and an advocate for business issues. Over time, I have experienced firsthand how the political process has become less responsive to its citizenry and less able to respond to legitimate and pressing challenges.

This increasing dysfunction reached its high point – or, more accurately, its nadir – in 2012 with the two efforts to legislate by referendum that appeared on the general election ballot. Regardless of how you sided on the questions of voter ID and the definition of marriage, the Legislature’s “passing the buck” in this fashion has to be counted as failure. And, if you want to see where this sort of behavior heads, one need only look to California, where there were no less than 11 questions on the ballot last fall.

Another sign of our increasingly troubled electoral system is the rise in plurality winners, electoral winners who garner less than 50 percent of the total votes cast. Elections decided in this fashion have become commonplace in both Minnesota’s primary and general elections. The last Minnesota governor elected with a majority of support from the citizenry, for example, was Arne Carlson in 1994. 

Candidates ranked in order of preference

Many of us believe that RCV is achievable and effective. Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) and thus create an “instant runoff” process. In a single-seat election, if no candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of first choices, the least popular candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots get reallocated to remaining candidates based on their voters’ next choices. This process continues until one candidate earns a majority of support.  RCV can also be used in multi-seat elections to expand representation to even more voters.

As noted, RCV functions like a traditional runoff but does so within a single election. This gives voters more choice among a range of candidates, eliminates the “wasted vote” syndrome that often hobbles third-party candidates and ensures a majority outcome without the expense and effort of a second or “runoff” election.

RCV is in use in Minneapolis, where I live, and St. Paul, and both cities will see it in action this year for citywide mayoral races as well as city council races. Duluth is among several other cities considering RCV for municipal elections. RCV is popularly used in cities from coast to coast and countries across the world. When implemented RCV is popular with voters and has been shown to make elections more inclusive, participatory and representative.

Popular with voters

RCV also helps mitigate excessive partisanship; to win a single-seat RCV election, a candidate must win a majority – not just most – of the votes. As a result, candidates have an incentive to appeal beyond their “base” to reach the broadest possible number of voters. When electoral success requires this sort of outreach, the system encourages more civility, more focus on common ground and less of the vitriol that's been so corrosive to our political process these past several years. 

We’re seeing these benefits at a local level where RCV is taking root in Minnesota. A bill to foster greater local use of RCV was introduced last year, and I hope we’ll be seeing that bill again this year. I encourage the Legislature to take up consideration of this bill when the window of opportunity is open for our state and our citizenry.

RCV enjoys increasing support from the public, from academics and – most tellingly – from many candidates and elected officials who are on the front lines of our political debates and who know firsthand what the current broken system is costing us and what we need to do to make it work better.

Jeffrey Peterson recently retired as director of government relations at Ecolab. He is    currently working with FairVote Minnesota as well as board membership with the History Theatre, Citizens League and Project 515. 

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Comments (18)

The problem

This is really a procedural response to a substantive problem which may or may not exist. The assumption underlying ranked voting is that voters rank their voting preferences. If they do, a ranked voting process could reflect that internal thought process. But I doubt if very many voters do that. I certainly don't, For me, most elections represent a clear choice. I favor one candidate, and all the others are an afterthought. An insistence that I rank them represents a fundamental distortion of how I vote.

The clearest example of how badly ranked voting works in practice was the last Minneapolis mayoral election where the well known incumbent was able to coast to re-election because his opposition was scattered and not well known. Had there been a primary, there would have been one opposition candidate who would have been able to challenge the incumbent and we would have at least a chance to discuss the issues that we dealt with, without any discussion during the campaign, over the last four years.

Familiarity

I wonder if this might change as time goes on. Currently, voters think about their choices in terms of - as you say - to "favor one candidate, and all the others are an afterthought." Which makes sense when you are only given a single "box to check".

But as time goes on and voters become more familiar with the idea of being offered a gradient of preference rather than a "this or that" choice, perhaps they will start familiarizing themselves more with all the choices since they will now know that they are being given the opportunity to express their (ranked) preference for more than one rather than being given the choice to vote only for a single candidate.

Clear Choices

I agree that most elections present a clear choice. Unfortunately, the choice is too often between Tweedeldum and Tweedledumber. I prefer to vote "for" a candidate, but I often find myself voting against a candidate's opponent: I don't want Wintergreen to win, but I will vote for him to keep Throttlebottom out of office. Ranked choice voting would avoid that situation by letting our other choices have a chance.

Another sign of our

Another sign of our increasingly troubled electoral system is the rise in plurality winners, electoral winners who garner less than 50 percent of the total votes cast.

If plurality winners are a problem, manufacturing a system designed to artificially produce majoritarian results doesn't solve it.

"RCV also helps mitigate excessive partisanship; to win a single-seat RCV election, a candidate must win a majority – not just most – of the votes."

By mitigating partisanship, even excessive partisanship, you are blurring the issues, again the result we got from the Minneapolis mayoral election for years ago. And it should be noted that this, at least in the context of Minneapolis mayoral elections is the classic solution in search of a problem. Since partisanship plays virtually no role in one party Minneapolis, what's the point of adopting any solution designed to mitigate it?

RCV is Plurality

Jeffery either doesn't understand the complex counting system with RCV or he is outright misleading people to adopt the method. As an employee of FairVote, this is not unexpected - they make money on Ranked Choice Voting.

FairVote was found to have broke Minn. campaign laws in implementing RCV/IRV:

http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/stpaul-issues/messages/topic/1I4Srl...

So these kind of statements from reps of FairVote are not unusual. They remind me of the late-night infomercials where its just too good to be true. Let's take a closer look:

Jeffery says "This process continues until one candidate earns a majority of support.", "RCV functions like a traditional runoff ..... and ensures a majority outcome". "to win a single-seat RCV election, a candidate must win a majority – not just most – of the votes."

POPPYCOCK! There more I read this, the more I understand these are just outright lies.

From the Star Tribune Nov. 12, 2009" "Kummer wins Park Board Seat without a majority" - with RCV. Kummer amassed 46 percent support to "win".

7848 citizens voted in the District 5 race. The "Majority threshold" was 3,925
Kummer received 3620 first and second place votes and won.

But is gets worse. In San Francisco's recent RCV election, 18,000 voters cast ballots and the winner had about 4,000 final votes or about 24% support.

So while Jeffery laments "Another sign of our increasingly troubled electoral system is the rise in plurality winners, electoral winners who garner less than 50 percent of the total votes cast", he should be honest and inform readers it happens all the time with Ranked Choice Voting.

Familiarity

For myself, as someone who is very familiar with election process, seeing the rest of the field as an afterthought, isn't the result of a lack of attention. But what happens with maybe the more typical voter, one who unlike me, isn't involved with the election process? Most voters don't know who their state representative or senator is. Many voters don't know who their congressman and senators are. Given this reality, how meaningful in terms of actually reflecting voter intent, is ranked choice voting? When you don't really know who your top choice is, what benefit is achieved by ranking the real unknowns down the ballot?

RCV

It's an incumbent protection program. It has been shown to be cumbersome and much more expensive than an open primary and general election. It makes voting more complicated, and it forecloses public debate between challengers.

What numbers mean.

One of my favorite things to say is "garbage in, garbage out". Stripped of the pejorative language, what that means is that your conclusions are never better than the data on which they are based, and that they always reflect that data. One thing that means is that it is pretty easy to get the conclusion you want in any given situation by the choice of data you intend to base it on.

Let's note and examine some of the assumptions the author of this piece makes. He assumes that voters rank their voter choice, and that the system needs to be reflected. Do they? And if they don't, doesn't a system which requires such ranking distort voter intent? The author is disturbed by excessive partisanship. But what if voters are excessively partisan? Again is crafting a system which tends to obscure that reality, do what one could argue voting should do, reveal voter intent?

False

The entire premise of this article is false. RCV is no more likely to eliminate plurality winners than the system we have now.

San Francisco had an RCV election in 2011. Mayor Ed Lee received 59,775 first place votes out of 194,418 votes cast (30.7 percent). After all the second and third place votes were re-allocated, Lee was up to 84,457 votes (43.4 percent). The second place candidate, John Avalos, had 57,160 (29.4 percent) after the second and third place votes were reallocated. The remaining 52,524 votes were on "exhausted" ballots and did not figure in the outcome. An exhausted ballot is one in which the the first chosen candidate has been eliminated, and the remaining choices (if any) have also been eliminated. Any ballot that did not include Lee or Avalos as one of the choices ended up being an exhausted ballot. If you look at just the votes to Lee and Avalos, Lee got more than 50 percent of the votes. But to call that a majority, you have to discard the nearly 30 percent of voters who did not name Lee or Avalos anywhere on their ballots. Its no different than looking at just the votes for Dayton and Emmer (and ignoring Horner's votes) in 2010 and saying that Dayton had a majority.

The same thing happened in Oakland in 2010. After the votes were re-allocated, approximately 12 percent of the ballots were exhaused. The elected mayor, Jean Quan had 53,897 votes from 119,607 voters after reallocation, which is only 45 percent. The second place candidate, Don Perata, who actually had far more first place votes than Quan (35 percent to 24 percent) - got 51,720 votes after reallocation, or 43 percent. If you only count the votes that went to Quan or Perata, then Quan had a majority of those votes, but to make the claim that this was a majority winner election, you have to discard the ballots of the 12 percent of voters that did not choose Quan or Perata with any of their choices.

The only way to fix the exhaustion problem is to force voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot. That would mean, for example, that if I lived in the 6th Congressional District, I would have to rank Michelle Bachmann (conservatives - substitute your own horror candidate) and that my vote could end up registering as a vote for her. If I don't rank her, or any of the other choices, my ballot would be invalid. Obviously, you can't force someone to vote for a candidate, even if just ranking them as a lower choice, so there is no way to fix the exhaustion problem.

I realize that fixing the problem of plurality winners is one of the big selling points of RCV advocates, but RCV doesn't fix that problem. I don't know if Mr. Peterson does not understand RCV very well or if he is not being truthful, but if you are asking people to change the way by which we vote, you should not be making false claims.

I'm surprised at the pushback

I was under the impression it was pretty commonly accepted that the two-party system is a huge problem - one never intended by the founders - and that it is a natural consequence of our "first-past-the-pole" voting system. It happens because people don't want to "waste" their vote. RCV fixes this. Just because people can throw out an example or two where RCV didn't result in the outcome they were looking for doens't mean it's not the best idea that's come along to solve the two-party problem.

You shouldn't be surprised

Your statement that "RCV fixes this" is false. RCV does not eliminate wasted votes. While RCV can distort the will of the electorate, my point in using the Oakland and San Francisco elections was to point out that RCV did not produce majority winners and resulted in a lot of wasted votes. The entire premise of RCV is a sham and people are figuring that out.

The two party system

I certainly don't believe that the two party system is a huge problem, and I don't think such a view is widely accepted. Whatever the founders expressed views on the subject, once they actually got around to the business of governing they could hardly wait to form two parties.

Other Methods

We could instead present the same user-interface to the vote (rank candidates) but apply a Condorcet method to get a marginally better result. The counting complexity goes up a bit but it is nothing too difficult to do in software.

Condorcet counting has its own issues. The mathematical truth is that there is no "perfect" counting method.

My problem

with RCV is the case where a person with more first place votes loses, as was the case in one of the examples in an earlier comment. If we must have a clear majority for a candidate to win, I'd say we should take the time to do a runoff. RCV is not the same as a runoff.

Runoff turnout

Of course, then you have the problem of lower turnout for runoff elections. You wish it wouldn't happen, but it does. So you really can't categorically claim that the results of a runoff end up representing a "true" majority of the "will of the people", either.

As has been stated elsewhere, so far, there are no perfect solutions. As always, it's a matter of evaluating the tradeoffs and trying to figure out the best way to come closest to what you are trying to achieve.

Lower turnout

Yes, it's likely you'll have a lower turnout. It is a problem that should be addressed at all levels. However, those that turn up for the runoff are likely to be those who believe that they have a stake in an election. I'm not sure that it's better that more people show up who are less likely to have an informed opinion. At least the "wasted votes" are only those that aren't cast. The "will of the people" has only ever been the will of those who voice their will (through voting). If you don't vote when given the chance, you'll get what you put in.

Perfect voting

A basic problem here is that lots of solutions are being proposed here without any clear understanding of or agreement on what the problem is, or what the goal of any voting system should be. I assume that the goal of the system should be to reflect voter intent, but that's just an assumption. Others seem to want undermine the two party system and excessive partisanship however we might define that, even if that means the system doesn't represent the will of the voters who are excessively partisan. Still others assume that a vote for a losing candidate is a "wasted" vote, a concept I know I find baffling.

Generalities

Maybe one problem here is that we speak in abstractions. But elections are never conducted inthe abstract. Which specific elections in recent Minnesota history would have been improved by ranked choice voting? For me, the nightmare scenario for RCV has always been the last Minneapolis mayoral election in which a well known incumbent was enabled by RCV to avoid campaigning altogether.