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How RCV could help take some of the money out of political campaigns

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
In the Minneapolis mayoral election, Betsy Hodges won in spite of being out-raised and out-spent by Mark Andrew.

As Benjamin Franklin famously noted in 1789, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

If the Founding Father were alive today, that saying might be more appropriate if it included “death, taxes, and expensive political campaigns.” 

It’s common knowledge today that political campaigns aren’t considered viable unless they’re able to raise and spend colossal amounts of money. In the 2012 presidential election, for example – between campaigns, committees, and Super PACs – both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cracked more than $1 billion (yes, billion!) spent trying to get elected.

Sure, money talks, but I think we can all agree that money wields far too large an influence in American politics these days. Just imagine how much good could be done – in the United States and around the world – with that kind of money.

So what can we do about it? Ranked-choice voting (RCV) may provide a solution.  

With RCV, broad support is important

In a ranked-choice-voting election, winning the support of a broad group of voters – not just your own party’s base – is crucially important. When candidates must earn voters’ second- and third-choice votes in order to win, they can’t risk alienating anyone. This means candidates spend a lot more time at forums, community events and knocking on doors – and much less time raising and spending money on crafting nasty attacks or slinging mud. There’s no faster way to turn off voters than to be the candidate who’s smearing your opponents instead of talking about the real issues.

And for those of us in Minnesota, we need look no further than 2013’s Minneapolis mayoral election. The candidate who raised and spent the most money by a significant margin didn’t ultimately win. Minneapolis isn’t the only place where the biggest spender lost under RCV, either: The same result happened in Aspen, Colo., in 2009; in Oakland and San Leandro, Calif., in 2010; and in Portland, Maine, in 2011.

Could encourage more moderate positions

I’d even venture to suggest that, eventually, ranked-choice voting could encourage the major political parties to adopt more moderate positions reflective of the entire electorate, regardless of special interests or whoever is able to spend the most money. Extremism, like excessive spending, is squandering our political process.

When I really think about it, ranked-choice voting represents a return to some of the best things that used to be staples of American politicking: knocking on doors, actually talking to voters, and building coalitions. And, my personal favorite: real, live debates between the candidates on issues critical to all voters not just the polled issues with the televised seven-second answer. These aren’t foreign concepts or newfangled ideas. This is good, old-fashioned politics returning to its roots.

Will ranked-choice voting completely remove money’s influence from politics? No, probably not. But we’ve already seen RCV succeed in welcoming new voices to the political process, giving voters more choice and power in their elections, and discouraging negative campaigning and baseless attacks. It’s not a perfect solution (truthfully, I’d argue that such a solution simply doesn’t exist), but it brings us closer to a stronger, fairer democracy that is accessible to all.

I support ranked-choice voting for many reasons – and decreasing the influence of money in politics is just one of them. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m confident that if we roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary, we can bring politics back to the business of having conversations and finding consensus, and move away from absurd wasting of money.

As for the other pesky two things – death and taxes – well, admittedly, ranked-choice voting isn’t the answer to everything. Benjamin Franklin was probably right about those two.

David Durenberger is a former U.S. senator from Minnesota.

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Comments (1)

Only a partial solution

If the goal is to get money out of campaigns, increase moderation and reduce attack ads, then RCV is only a partial solution.

Under current law independent groups can raise and spend large sums of money, while not being affiliated with a particular candidate. While the candidates themselves may be more likely to be civil to each other and do more connecting with voters, independent groups will still spend large sums to promote their favorites and attack those they don't like.