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Ranked Choice Voting would help rid political campaigns of negative ads

You can do something about those negative ads. Really. You can. Unfortunately, what you can do will take a long time to get done. And when you’re done doing it the negative ad problem won’t be fixed entirely, just mostly. But you can do it.
First some background: Why do we have negative ads? 

Because in the U.S. our elections are primarily binary; that is you usually have two and only two real choices, the Republican and the Democrat. When making a choice between the Republican and the Democrat, you, the voter, can use one of two motivation systems: You can vote for the candidate you like or you can vote against the candidate you don’t like. Therein lies our problem.

Campaign professionals have learned that far and away the most effective way to win elections is to teach the electorate to vote against the other guy. Not for you. Against them. 

And how do we teach the electorate what a bad choice you’d make if you voted for the other guys?  Negative ads, that’s how.

Appeals to decency haven’t worked
Lots of people – me included – have lamented negative ads for years. We appeal to the decency and honesty and integrity of candidates and campaign managers. That hasn’t been working, though. Campaigns keep getting more and more negative. Some people – I’m not included in this bunch – say that candidates must stop using negative ads or we’ll vote against them. I don’t say that because it simply isn’t true.

Here’s what is true: If you’re running for office in a large area that is electorally competitive (e.g. the State of Minnesota) and you or someone on your behalf doesn’t somehow publicize negative information about your opponent, you’re going to get beaten. It’s that simple.

Everyone says they don’t like negative ads – and no one does like them – but it’s the way we do elections now. And, by the way, it’s not just the ads. Negative information gets disseminated by bloggers and email and YouTube as well.

A simple idea
How can we begin to change this negative pall hanging over our politics and elections?
One thing we can do is to support and enact something called Ranked Choice Voting. Some people call it Instant Runoff Voting. Whatever you want to call it (I’ll use RCV), it’s a simple idea based on the belief that those elected to office can serve best if they are supported by a majority of those who voted in their election.

Wait a minute, you might say. Don’t all of our elected officials receive the support of a majority of the electorate?  Well, no, actually. The last time Minnesota had a governor elected by a majority of the people was in 1994. In 1998 we elected a governor (Jesse Ventura) who had only 37 percent of the people voting for him. (See, we weren’t as wild and crazy in Minnesota as people around the country said we were; just a little more than a third of us were wild and crazy.)  It’s pretty clear that we’re going to elect a governor this year without a majority of the people supporting him.

Ventura, by the way, was the harbinger of the future in Minnesota politics because he emboldened the Independence Party (and independents in general) to think about actually winning elections instead of just registering a protest. Most Independence candidates lack Ventura’s celebrity, but they now can be counted on to be in every major race and often to garner a significant portion of the vote. Significant Independence party votes guarantee we won’t have a majority supporting the Republican or Democratic candidates.

If we had Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) we could have an election where our governor would receive majority support. We don’t, of course, but if we did, here’s how it would work:

If no majority, a redistribution occurs
Assume you gave your first choice in this November’s gubernatorial election to Independence candidate Tom Horner, and your second choice to Republican Tom Emmer. All the first-choice votes get counted, and it turns out that Democrat Mark Dayton has 36 percent of the first-choice votes, Emmer has 34 percent, and Horner 30 percent. Since no one has a majority, the person with the lowest count (Horner) gets dropped and his second-choice votes are redistributed between Dayton and Emmer. Many people who made Horner their first choice are like you: They said that, if Tom Horner wasn’t going to win, they wanted Tom Emmer to win. Emmer gets considerably more of Horner’s second-choice votes than Dayton does. Emmer wins the election, even though Dayton was ahead after the opening round of counting was completed.

Or, it could be the reverse, with Dayton emerging as the preference of the majority after Horner’s votes are redistributed. Or, it could also be that Horner places first and Emmer’s or Dayton’s votes are redistributed and Horner emerges as the winner.

In this tight race, we just don’t know who the choice of the majority would be. And that’s the point. We need a system that can tell us whom a majority of voters prefer.
“So,” you ask, “how does this Ranked Choice Voting system cut down on negative ads?”

Campaign strategies would change
It does it by fundamentally changing the strategy used to win an election. Currently you win by exciting your base and teaching the rest of the electorate to vote against the other guy. Under RCV you win by amassing a majority of the electorate’s support. Negative ads are no longer used without consequence: If you’re too negative, you could easily turn off the other candidates’ supporters. They won’t give you their second-choice votes and you lose the election.

I’m not trying to suggest that RCV will immediately and overwhelmingly make our politics better. But I can tell you, as someone who’s talked a lot of campaign strategy with a lot of campaign managers and candidates, there is a profound strategic difference between the current basic question every campaign begins with – “How do we get more votes than our opponents?” –  and the question you have to ask in an RCV system, “How do we get the support of the majority of the people?” 

Today’s campaigns are conceptually simple: Get your base supporters to the polls to vote for you, and then persuade everyone else to vote against your opponent. Under RCV candidates would need to not only get their base supporters to vote for them but to persuade their opponents’ supporters to vote for them too, to give them their second choice. Suddenly it’s not quite as smart to go hard negative.

Passing RCV isn’t going to be easy. Lots of hard-core political activists don’t like the idea. They’ve attained their stature in the “vote against” era, and anything else sounds naïve to them. Besides, who likes to change? 

Can the public figure it out?
Some activists argue that the public is way too dumb to figure out an RCV system. Ranking choices requires nuanced thinking skills, and, they say, that’s something the public just doesn’t have.

I disagree. The public hasn’t had much chance to exercise nuanced judgment under the current system. With RCV they might develop an ability to do that.

I’ve been involved in Minnesota politics for 50 years. It’s never been as negative as it is now. Today trackers follow candidates everywhere. Every day. At every appearance, no matter how small. What are they doing? Shooting video of every word, hoping they can catch the candidate saying something stupid or – even better – picking his nose or scratching his fanny. Campaigns used to be dialogues where competing approaches to the state’s problems were discussed. Now campaigns spend most of their time and energy finding and publicizing negative information about the opponent.
We can go back to campaigns that are at least partially about the issues with Ranked Choice Voting. RCV is being tried in cities now, and proving to be very successful. But it takes time to make big changes.

We’ve got to do something about the rampant negativity in our current political discourse, though. If we don’t, our ability to have a civil civic dialogue about what’s important in our society will continue to be destroyed.
Wy Spano is the director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Kelly O'Brien on 09/23/2010 - 12:03 pm.

    Excellent commentary. To add to your argument, I believe that people can easily make choices about ranking their candidates–we make ranking decisions every day. If my favorite cereal is out of stock at the grocery store, I choose my second favorite, for example.

    I have watched 9-year-olds rank ballots of their favorite desserts, and they don’t think twice. Granted, desserts are less fraught with consequences than elected officials. But the point those kids demonstrate so well is that they don’t overthink it. So, voters contemplating RCV, I encourage you to try it out and don’t overthink it!

  2. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 09/23/2010 - 01:33 pm.

    Speaking as a former campaign manager of insurgent progressive candidates,IRV is not going to cure negative campaigning. The real question every candidate faces is how many votes do you need to win. IRV just increases that number, making it harder for third parties and political newcomers to achieve that number.
    Based on the Minneapolis experience, all IRV does is increase the cost of elections, decrease voter turnout, decrease press coverage of the election,and provide full employment for math majors.
    It doesn’t even result in majority elections, for that matter–check out the results of the Park Board District 3 race; after the final application of IRV, the winner only got 48% of the vote.
    IRV supporters kept promoting the cost savings for not having a primary, an estimated $36,000 savings. Actually, the first IRV election cost the City $236,000! This did NOT include the $1 million for the initial voter education effort (or any ongoing education), and it DID NOT include the extensive overtime for staff. By the way, due to the senate recount and IRV, staff was not allowed to take more than one vacation day at a time for 2008 or 2009.
    What did happen was that incumbents cruised to easy victories. Mayor RT refused to participate in any debates at all–until the day before the election. The press was largely asleep at the wheel–interviewing/covering 14 candidates was just too much work apparently. And because opposition votes were spread over so many choices, it looked as if there was only token opposition, an impression reenforced by no media coverage.
    Instant? It took 30 days to get the hand-counted election results–not bad for a 3rd world country, but unacceptable for the US. (No voting machines have been certified yet to allow a machine count.) And due to the mathimatical reapportioning of ranked choices, nobody but the math geeks were really sure if the final count was kosher or not. (Imagine trying to re-verify the results in case of a recount!)
    Under IRV, voters only had ONE vote for multiposition races,such as Park Board at large (with 3 seats up for election). So voters actually lost choices.
    And turnout? Half of what a regular city election usually produces. The folks that showed up thought it was OK, but nobody asked those regular voters that didn’t what they thought.
    Frankly, we could have spent this money to rehab at least a half-dozen affordable homes instead. I don’t consider majority rule as acceptable for voting on my civil rights, and I personally think majority rule tends to lend itself to tyranny of the majority. Nothing wrong with coalition building to build consensus, get things done, and to bring more viewpoints to the table.
    And civility? Immediately after the electorate soundly rejected by 66% eliminating the Board of Estimate and Taxation, RT led the charge to strip BET of its’ audit powers and gave them to the City Council. Apparently his majority win gave him authority to fly the finger at the voters.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/23/2010 - 03:36 pm.

    I think I can agree with much of this Wy, and RCV has value. I do think there is a corollary to the comments on negative ads (and here I put on my partisan hat). That would be that the farther to the right the candidate, the more negativity you find. It is not because the left is nicer or more rational — it is because the far right’s premise IS negativity. Complaints, whining, attacking the status quo. They have few positive proposals except the generalities of God and country. Michele Bachmann (a poster child for this premise) speaks only in such platitudes — she has not proposed a successful bill in Congress this session, and maybe never. that is not her schtick. She has NO positive ads to run.

    It might be interesting to test my premise some way or someday, after the election — till then, guess we will just have to suffer through this minefield of political advertising garbage and nonesense.

  4. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 09/23/2010 - 04:37 pm.

    A good argument by Wy, but we can also look at RCV in practice to extrapolate what might happen in a statewide election.

    I studied one example of an RCV election in the last Mpls Park Board race, and what I saw made me a little more reticent to embrace the “RCV/IRV will end negative campaigning” argument. In this three way race, the winning strategy was for one of the front runners to align with the presumed 3rd place candidate on issues and pound the other frontrunner with negative lit pieces.

    I fear a three way race for Governor would risk a similar strategy and wouldn’t eliminate negative campaigning – just change it. Consider the present race. If one assumes that Tom Horner will finish 3rd (perhaps not a safe assumption presently), there is an incentive to appeal to the 3rd place finisher’s voters. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’d be no negative campaigning. The act of drawing distinctions would likely be done through negation. “Like Tom Horner, I oppose a job-killing income tax” says Emmer. “Like Tom Horner, I recognize the need to raise revenue to avoid crushing cuts to higher education and health care” says Dayton. But as Wy points out, this is different than the current emphasis on gotcha sensationalism.

    This is not a reason to reject RCV, I’m a supporter. And what I point out above isn’t necessarily a bad thing for policy or campaigning – it gives a 3rd party candidate more of an impact on a race even if they don’t win.

  5. Submitted by Dana Bacon on 09/23/2010 - 05:34 pm.

    RCV (which I support) would help reduce the rewards of negative campaigning, which is good for all of us. I’m grateful for Mr. Spano’s piece, and hope readers will take it to heart.

    In the interests of not overselling the virtues of RCV, however, this system will not end negative campaigning. Beyond Aaron’s well-reasoned point about candidates finding a common enemy and campaigning thusly, negativity sometimes has its merits: a candidate with bad ideas or serious liabilities needs to be called out, and such ads allow for that.

    The real value of RCV (in this context) is that candidates who go negative for nasty reasons can be punished by voters, and that voters won’t have to gamble on which of “the other two” to reward for being honest brokers in the political process. RCV will help us make electoral decisions on the basis of positive considerations, and that’s in all of our best interests.

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