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Ranked-choice voting would benefit all parties and all Minnesota voters

Last month, Eric Black put forth the proposition that ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) "would help two of Minnesota's three parties." As card-carrying, "big tent" members of that third party, the Republicans, permit us to make the case that ranked-choice voting (RCV) will actually benefit all parties and all Minnesota voters.

First, though, a little background. Without much fanfare, over the last two decades our state has slipped into the habit of electing plurality winners to office. Only in 1996 and 2006 did we send our U.S. senators to Washington with support from a majority of the state's voters. Our last governor elected by a majority was Arne Carlson in 1994. 

Some may think little of this phenomenon, but the truth is that minority status puts a hobble on our elected officials at a time when we have a profound need for leaders who can lengthen their stride enough to step across partisan lines. Far better for them — and for us — that our officeholders serve with the benefit of knowing that they were elected with the support of a majority of voters.

Ranked-choice voting can do that.  Under RCV, voters choose the candidate they prefer — as they would on a traditional ballot — but also designate a second choice and additional choices if they wish. If a candidate receives a majority of votes in the first counting, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and his or her ballots are divided among the remaining candidates based on voters' second choices. If there's still no majority winner, the process repeats until one candidate gains a majority of support.

Like a traditional runoff, but simpler
Simply, ranked-choice voting is like a traditional runoff but conducted in a single election, making the process far simpler and more cost effective than holding a second election to achieve the same purpose.

Ranked-choice voting benefits all parties and voters: It negates the rationale for "tactical" voting, it increases participation, and better reflects the diversity of our state. RCV provides voters greater candidate choice, expands the range of debate and discourages the worst tendencies of today's attack politics. Any one of these advantages could be the subject of its own discussion, but since Black's analysis looked instead at the question of political benefit, it's here where we'll focus the balance of our attention.

Black endorsed the conventional wisdom that RCV would favor independent candidates first and Democratic candidates second, basing this belief on the lopsided support for RCV by Independents and Democrats in Minnesota.  There's a circularity to that logic — it must be true because nearly everyone thinks it must be true — that is somewhat less than persuasive to us. 

Instead, we subscribe to the notion that Minnesota is a middle-of-the-road state, a view supported by a recent Gallup poll, in which 37 percent of Minnesotans surveyed called themselves "moderates," an equal share "conservative," while 22 percent called themselves "liberal."

GOP, Democrats have moved away from centrism
It appears to us that both the Republican and Democratic parties have moved away from our state's inherent centrism and are no longer willing or able to appeal to a majority of voters.  Independent candidates have attempted to step into this vacuum, and some have captured enough votes to split the electorate enough to produce minority electoral outcomes.

As moderates, we are troubled by this trend and by a voting system that encourages extremism on both sides of the political aisle. We believe it is in the long-term political interests of both Republicans and Democrats that we adopt measures that counter those tendencies toward extremism. Ranked-choice voting provides this balance. Under an RCV system, candidates win by appealing not only to their political base but by reaching beyond the base as well. A candidate behaves differently when he or she knows that being someone's second choice is a tangible benefit.

Promoters of the conventional wisdom will point to Minnesota's lopsided party identification numbers — our electorate identifies itself as more Democratic than Republican by a sizable margin — as an indication that such a system will benefit the Democrats more than the Republicans, but — as Black noted in passing — nobody really knows for sure that this is the case.  They also will probably fail to note that party identification has never been weaker in modern times than it is today. What today's voters really care about are proposals and programs that work, about solutions that actually fix problems

RCV discourages attack politics
RCV discourages the kind of attack politics we've seen over the last several elections and instead promotes campaigning based on ideas and positions. It is a benefit to candidates of any political stripe with ideas and proposals and who want the interests and preferences of their community to be reflected at the ballot box. Let the parties put their ideas forward, let them stand in the light of an issue-oriented electoral process and be judged by the voters. 

Ranked-choice voting is a tested and successful system used in cities across America and in democracies around the world, including Ireland, Northern Ireland and Australia. It had a successful rollout last year in Minneapolis and is on track for implementation in St. Paul. It's time to take this idea to the state level for consideration and — we hope — adoption.  Such a development would be good for all parties and citizens regardless of their political leanings.

George Pillsbury is a former state senator (1971-82). The Pillsburys have been active for many years in the Republican Party and civic life in Minnesota.

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Comments (5)

I'd have to disagree with Mr. Pillsbury's opinion that Minnesota is "centrist."

What brought Minnesota to a high level of success in all the ways usually counted (economy, health care, first-class education K-grad school, public amenities, infrastructure, et cetera) were put in place by liberal governors (Democrats and Republicans) and legislatures with a high level of public support.

I find convincing none of the reasons offered for the adoption of IRV.

There is nothing wrong with a plurality win. In fact, I see IRV as creating a false majority which masks the real split among voters and can be used by the winner to claim support which does not exist.

I do not see how it would eliminate "tactical" voting. Voters are still faced with the prospect of their initial vote being wasted and being deprived of a meaningful second place vote.

Increased participation? We'll see. Certainly, we see more people at the polls on election day than in primaries. But if people aren't prepared to make the effort to vote in a primary, are they going to be prepared to vote in the general election? I think not.

As for increasing diversity: to what end? Gadfly candidates already are a problem. (Ramsey County voters will recall the multiple candidacies of Mary Jane Rachner Reagan, one of which resulted in a win which can be accounted for only on the basis of name recognition.)

Discourage the worst of today's attack politics? How? The reality is that the front-runners will be as readily identifiable and the motive for attacks as strong under IRV as we find today.

Thanks, but I'm satisfied with the devil I know.

"Ranked-choice voting is a tested and successful system used in cities across America"

Why then have a number of cities that adopted ranked choice voting repealed it after a few election cycles? Aspen, Colorado and Pierce County (Tacoma) Washington got rid of IRV last fall, and Burlington Vermont repealed IRV in an election a few weeks ago. Before we expend IRV, I would like to see someone address why IRV is not working in these places.

I also might feel better about it if the organizers of the St. Paul campaign had not made "knowingly false claims" and committed "multiple and deliberate" violations of campaign law in order to get IRV enacted.

The reason why RCV is repealed in these cities is not because it didn’t work but because it did--just not the way opponents wanted it to. Those who lost and those who think their chances are better under the old system led efforts to get the old way back. Unfortunately, voters there will return to plurality outcomes and expensive, low turnout runoffs. Minneapolis’ successful roll out of RCV demonstrates it works, it’s easy and voters like it. Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro will all begin to use RCV this November and Saint Paul will use it next year.

No doubt opponents in St. Paul will try to repeal RCV there, too, and try to bring back a system that favors their special interests over the voters’ interests.

When you say IRV worked in Minneapolis, what you really mean is that it had no impact. The mayor's race was not competitive and IRV did not change the results of any of the other races. The only difference was that the election was more expensive and it took longer to get the results.

What happened in Burlington, Vermont was the mayor who got elected got in with only 29 percent of the vote. Another candidate would have won with the old plurality system, and a third candidate would have won under Condorcet voting - another system advocated by election reformers. There was not a clear winner, and when the mayor became embroiled in scandal, Burlington - known as an extremely progressive town - dumped IRV. Burlington was hailed as an IRV success, I guess because like in Minneapolis the votes got counted and there was a winner, but in reality IRV was a complete and utter failure. As to special interests, the only real special interest in that race was the liars from Fairvote who poured a bunch of money into the race to try to save IRV.