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If we want to swap polarization for moderation, we should adopt Ranked Choice Voting

I’m a lifelong moderate and have always thought of myself as results-oriented — in work and in life. When there’s a problem to solve, I’m not concerned with dogma or ideological preconceptions; I’m interested in what works.

That’s how I’ve approached my career in corporate leadership, and it’s how I’ve approached my public service, including my work on the U of M Board of Regents and my tenure as chair of the Governor’s Workforce Development Council. My pragmatic focus on real-life solutions has served me well as an innovator and a leader.

And it’s precisely why I’m such a strong believer in Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Because, as this shutdown has so clearly underlined, politics in Minnesota is in dire need of innovation. Because, unless you have a vested interest in political polarization, mudslinging and rancor, the electoral system we’ve got right now is not working — and it sure isn’t good for the Minnesota business community I represent.

We shouldn’t accept “politics as usual” as a fact of life. It isn’t. There’s a better way to run a democracy, and it’s our responsibility — yours and mine — to demand it: RCV.

Father risked everything
My father was my greatest role model. He taught me, by example, the importance of integrity, and of standing up for what you believe in. When I was a teenager, he risked everything — his business, many friendships, even his neck — by discovering and reporting several cases of insurance fraud by some very prominent individuals. Indictments followed, and my father’s life was threatened.

I remember asking him, “Dad, why did you have to be the one? Why can’t somebody else speak out?” His answer: “Because it’s right. And if not me, Cyndi, then who?”

I’ve carried that all my life and tried to apply it in all kinds of different situations. It’s why I volunteer my time on the board of FairVote Minnesota — because I know that our political system is broken, and we can’t just wait for others to fix it.

There was a time when it didn’t matter so much who won election: Democrat or Republican, I could trust they would govern in the interests of the majority of Minnesotans. This was the Minnesota way.

Those days are now gone, and I have no illusion they’ll return. Appealing to candidates and the parties to tone down the attacks, engage in civil discourse and rise above the narrow interests of their base hasn’t worked — and won’t work as long as the system is hard-wired to reward this political behavior.

Under our “plurality-take-all” system, candidates win by mobilizing their party base and scaring undecided and independent voters away from their opponents. Divide-and-conquer campaigns work in a system that locks voters into a “lesser-of-two-evils” choice.
Current process jeopardizes state’s health
Our electoral process is jeopardizing the long-term health of our state.

Satisfying the party’s “base” is a winning strategy in a system where elections can be won with as little as a third of the vote. But it’s a dangerous way to elect officeholders who have to govern an entire state. Elected officials who are indebted to their base enter office with their hands tied by single-issue pledges that put thoughtful deliberation and consensus out of reach.

Moreover, they can’t work productively together when just weeks before they waged nasty ad campaigns belittling each others’ character and reputation. As the shutdown and lose-lose budget deal have revealed, problems are simply pushed off to the future, exacerbating their size and scope and prolonging their resolution.

We must change the system if we want to swap polarization, zealousness, and deadlock for thoughtfulness, moderation, and compromise. We must put the incentives in place to compensate these outcomes. Ranked Choice Voting does this.

Under Ranked Choice Voting, voters “rank” their preferences — 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. In a single-seat race (e.g. governor), if no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the least popular candidates are eliminated and their votes are reassigned to remaining candidates until one receives a majority of continuing votes. It works like a traditional runoff but happens in a single election, saving taxpayers the cost of a second election, candidates the expense of another campaign and voters another trip to the polls.

Under this kind of system, third-party candidates can run and capture votes without being labeled a “spoiler.” Voters can rank No. 1 the candidate they think will do the best job without concern that they’ll “throw their vote away” or help toss the election to the candidate they least favor.

More choice to voters
RCV gives more choice to voters and makes third parties more competitive. In multicandidate races, candidates must reach beyond their base to appeal to voters for their second choices. It rewards candidates — and parties — who strive to represent the broad interests of the majority and penalizes those pushing ideologically extreme, single-issue agendas. Finally, it produces winners who take office with the affirmation of a majority.

RCV isn’t just smart, it’s doable. We know from its use in Minneapolis (and several other cities across the country and countries across the globe) that it works. St. Paul debuts RCV this year, and other Minnesota cities are working toward it. As counties across the state replace their voting equipment in the coming years, they can install machines able to tally a ranked ballot.  The technology already exists.

RCV is within reach, and I hope Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature will put this critical reform on their list of priorities in the next session. Please join me in asking our elected leaders to enact RCV statewide.

Minnesota can’t wait.

Cyndi Lesher is a retired CEO of Northern States Power, an Xcel Energy Company, and served as president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Host Committee for the 2008 Republican National Convention.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dale Sheldon-Hess on 07/22/2011 - 03:05 pm.


    RCV still has spoilers. Therefore, it is almost no help to third parties or to moderation.

    Here, I’ll show you. Assume there are two parties, A and B, and party B is the preferred one, 55% to 45%. Then, we add a third party, called C, which is appealing to a majority (but not all) of the B-favoring-voters. The RCV votes then might look something like this:

    45%: A > B > C
    10%: B > A > C
    15%: B > C > A
    35%: C > B > A

    If RCV truly had no spoilers, than either the original winner, B, would still win, or the winner would change to the new contender, C.

    In other words, if I ask you to choose between A and B, and you say B, and if I then ask you to choose between A, B, and C, you should *never* pick A; that would be inconsistent of you.

    But what does RCV do in this situation? It picks A. If the C-voters were smart, they could, just as they are forced to do now, pick the lesser of two evils, and rank B first. RCV doesn’t help third parties win elections.

    There ARE voting systems which actually don’t have spoilers; which would actually help third parties and moderates. If that’s something you are truly interested in, I recommend looking into approval voting, and score voting (AKA range voting.) It’s difficult, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there–which this piece has now added to–making false claims about the benefits of RCV.

    I recommend the book “Gaming the Vote” by William Poundstone for good, unbiased introduction to the topic.

  2. Submitted by Tony Santos on 07/22/2011 - 04:21 pm.

    I would like to reply to Ms Lesher’s comments regarding the use of IRV. She is completely wrong on her assessment of IRV. It does not do any of the things she suggests it does; first and foremost, IRV does not result in a “majority” winner. Review the results of elections here in Northern California in November 2010. IN San Francisco, Calif, the district 10 supervisor won her election with 24% of the votes cast; Jean Quan of Oakland Calif. won her race with 44.6% of votes cast; interesting fact here is Ms. Quan received only 24% of first place votes and here in San Leandro, the present Mayor won with 45% of the votes cast .IRV is no more than a plurality election with a fancy nomenclature. But the worst thing about IRV is it is discriminatory against miniority voters. It is confusing and there are more spoiled ballots than in any other tyoe of election. If Minnesota wants a majority winner, the only way to do is through runoff elections. Finally, many communities have repealed the use of IRV due to its flaws. Aspen, Co., Cary, NC, Burlington, VT and Pierce County Wahington have all repealed IRV. I recommend everyone goes slow before adopting a failed system.

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/22/2011 - 10:23 pm.

    I guess I would like to hear from the author about Burlington, Vermont and other places that have tried IRV and then repealed it. The Burlington repeal came after an election in which the the candidate receiving the most first-place votes did not win the election after the IRV process was completed. Rather than building consensus, electing a mayor that way undermined his legitimacy. A lot of money and big name support were put into defeating the repeal, but the people of Burlington decided they just didn’t want IRV.

    The biggest problem with IRV is that it really serves as an incumbent protection program. By narrowing down the field, primaries allow the opposition to focus support and money on one candidate, rather than spreading it out among many. Rybak wasn’t going to lose the Minneapolis election, but if the competition had been narrowed down to one other candidate, there would have at least been a real contest. IRV made that election a joke by dispersing the vote (and the effort and money) among the numerous candidate who ran. What you are going to see if IRV gets more widely adopted and used in partisan elections is a lot of gaming the system and spoiler candidates from both sides.

  4. Submitted by Randall Bachman on 07/25/2011 - 08:45 am.

    If the goal is to get more moderate, reasonable people involved in the polictical system, maybe the answer is for “passionate moderates” to get more involved in their respective parties. We’ve become less engaged and allowed our parties to be highjacked by the ideologues. Maybe what just happened in Minnesota, and what is currently happening at the federal level will wake up the complacent middle–I hope.

  5. Submitted by Tom Miller on 07/25/2011 - 12:48 pm.

    IRV may be marginally better than our current system; but it has plenty of problems of its own.

    If a goal is to ensure that a candidate for public office wins with a majority of the vote, put a law in place that requires a majority winner, with the possibility of a runoff between the top two vote getters if a majority is not achieved.

    There are two major flaws with IRV. The first is that ranking can range from a simple choice to an impossibly complex one. In last year’s elections for judge, there were two dozen candidates for Seat 3 in District 10. Who could know them all? Former Governor Schwarzenegger won his first election against roughly 300 other candidates. Rank one to 300? The second flaw is that, given this complexity of choice, a person cannot get to know every candidate before the final election. In a runoff, the two top vote getters would have a period of time to campaign, so voters could get to know them and consequently make a truly informed decision.

    The best way to promote third parties is to eliminate primary elections. The original idea behind primaries was to break the hold of political party internal machinery, seemingly to make the process more democratic. What actually happens is that politicians who would run as true independents or as a part of new political party jump into a major party primary, assuming a label rather than expressing their true beliefs. The Tom Horner candidacy was a prime example of this; a life-long Republican jumps to the Independence Party to run for governor. (This is not a knock on Horner the man, but on the system that forced him into a primary election in a major party that he had never belonged to.)

    If primary elections are eliminated, the general election would be for all the marbles; people would pay attention. Primaries attract few voters, and crossover voting can pollute the results.

    Political party endorsements should be made by political parties. The parties should stick by (and possibly be stuck with) their process and their candidates. Primary elections upset the operations and choices of parties as well as dulling the urge and practicality for excellent people to run as independents or to form new parties.

    Summary: eliminate primary elections; ensure that it takes a majority to win.

  6. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 08/03/2011 - 10:02 pm.

    I was just alerted to Cyndi Lesher’s article by, of which I am a member. I am surprised that her article has received mostly negative commentary, because I believe RCV is truly a popular idea. I hope this thread of commentary is not too cold for me to offer up a defense of RCV against its critics.

    I have just worked through the scenario that Dale Sheldon-Hess presented to demonstrate that RCV does not eliminate the spoiler effect. I believe Sheldon-Hess’s concept of a “spoiler” is different from mine. According to my concept, “spoiling” is what happens when you cast your vote for a candidate in a three-way race who comes in last place, with the result that your vote is thrown away and the winner turns out to be the candidate you like the least.

    This kind of “spoiling” can’t happen under RCV, and it didn’t happen in Sheldon-Hess’s scenario. In this hypothetical RCV election, voters who chose B as their first choice were unlucky enough to back the third-place loser in a three-way race, but fortunately for them, they did not have their votes thrown away, as would happen under our present electoral system. Instead, two thirds of B voters had their votes transfered to candidate C, according to their own preference, and the remaining third had their votes transfered to candidate A, according to their own preference. As a result, candidate A won the election with 55% of the vote. This isn’t “spoiling”; this is counting votes that under our present electoral system would be thrown away. Nobody in Sheldon-Hess’s hypothetical RCV election could complain that it would have been better not to have voted at all.

    Under our present electoral system, any one of us may become an unwilling spoiler, simply by voting for a third-place loser and indirectly causing our least favorite candidate to win. For example, in the presidential election of the year 2000, voters for Ralph Nader indirectly helped George W. Bush to win, an outcome that may have made many of them wish they had not voted at all.

    I cannot understand why Sheldon-Hess believes that the scenario he described demonstrates that RCV is “almost no help to third parties or to moderation.” In his scenario, B voters were clearly the moderates, since two thirds of them supported candidate C and one third supported candidate A. Rather than simply throw away the votes of moderate voters, like the B voters in Sheldon-Hess’s own scenario, RCV transfers them, according to their own preferences. That’s a lot more help to moderates than our present electoral system gives. Moreover, if candidate A had done a little less well and candidate C a little better, B voters would have given the victory to candidate C.

    But the strongest moderating effect of RCV has nothing to do with math. It has to do with weakening the politically polarizing incentive to demonize the opposition, which Cyndi Lesher observed in her article. If as a candidate for public office you need to appeal not only to voters who will make you their first choice, but also to those who would make you their SECOND or even third choice, you have less incentive to demonize your opponents, because they may be the personal favorites of some of the voters who might help you win by making you their second choice.

  7. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 08/03/2011 - 10:32 pm.

    I have no idea where Tony Santos got his data, but if it ever actually happened anywhere that any candidate won an RCV election with less than 50% of the vote plus one vote, then this was not a failure of RCV; it was a failure to properly implement RCV. Implemented properly, RCV cannot possibly enable a candidate to win with a mere plurality of votes. (And even if it did, it would be no worse than the electoral system we have now.)

    I don’t have the information to comment upon the fate of RCV in Burlington, Vermont, to which Dan Hintz alluded in his comment. However, I can comment about Minneapolis. I am mystified about why Hintz seems to believe that a much larger number of competing candidates somehow qualifies as an “incumbent protection program.” In a purely quantitative sense, having more competitors means that an incumbent has a better chance of losing. Of course, quantity is not the same thing as quality. Mayor Rybak might have been defeated by a better organized, more popular opponent.

    I cannot agree with Tom Miller that RCV is just “too complex.” In an RCV election, you don’t have to make as many choices as there are candidates. You can choose as many or as few candidates as you really want to vote for, with no serious consequences. For example, if there are 100 candidates in an RCV election, you do not have to rank your choices from one to 100, or even from one to 99. You can even vote for only one candidate, if that’s really the only person you can stand. There is nothing necessarily complex about RCV.

    I also cannot agree that the solution to our electoral woes is simply to eliminate primary elections. However, I see no reason why RCV cannot be used for primaries as well as for general elections. If we believe that crossover voting is a problem (and I agree with Miller that is sometimes is), then the solution is to have closed rather than open primaries. Since RCV makes smaller parties and a larger number of parties viable, it creates more possibilities for people to involve themselves in politics more honestly, without pretending to be somebody they are not. How many people who presently run for office as Democrats or Republicans would rather run as Independents, Greens, or Libertarians? Under RCV, they would be able to do so much more easily.

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