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.
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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