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Ranked-choice voting: Minneapolis data show people use it with sophistication

It seems that Minneapolis voters’ choices about whether to use their second-choice rankings were sophisticated and context-sensitive in 2009.

Voters’ choices about whether to use their second-choice rankings are sophisticated and context-sensitive.
Photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

In the May 13 Karen Boros article Minneapolis political upheaval signals possible major change at City Hall,” University of Minnesota Professor Larry Jacobs is quoted as saying “the idea that voters are going to have a detailed understanding of a number of candidates, that they’re going to be able to rank them, exceeds any research I’ve ever seen about voter knowledge.” He calls the idea that more than a quarter or third of voters will rank multiple candidates “just unrealistic.” 

I’m not sure what basis Jacobs has for this assertion, but he’s not backed up by reality. And the reality is not hard to find: Just look at the results of the 2009 ranked-choice election in Minneapolis. 

A few races went to a second or later round in that election, including Ward 4. Of the 832 people who voted for one of the third- and fourth-place candidates or write-ins, 525 had a second choice counted. That’s 63 percent.

Ward 5 also went to a second round. Of the 498 people who voted for one of the candidates who got the fewest votes or write-ins, 352 had a second choice counted.  That’s 71 percent.

Multiple rounds for Park Board At-Large race

The Park Board At-Large race went to multiple rounds. Of the 36,613 people who had a first choice in that race, 24,957 had at least a second choice. That’s 68 percent.

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And it’s not just the races that went to second rounds. A quick look at the Secretary of State’s website shows that for the 13 City Council races, Park Board At-Large, and Mayor, only one race (Cam Gordon’s re-election as Council Member for Ward 2) had fewer than one-third as many second choice votes as first-choice votes.

These data point to a completely different and more interesting model of voter intelligence than Jacobs’s. Indeed, it seems that voters’ choices about whether to use their second-choice rankings were sophisticated and context-sensitive. Were there more than two candidates in a given race? If so, more folks used their second-choices. Was the winner the runaway favorite? If so, fewer voters used their second choices. 

Compare Ward 2 with Ward 5 races

Look at the difference between Ward 2, where a popular incumbent was headed for a landslide victory against a little-known challenger, and there were only two candidates on the ballot, versus Ward 5, where the incumbent was up against a former council member and three other candidates. 

In the former case, only 20 percent of voters used their second choice, and this was an understandable decision: Council Member Gordon was extremely likely to win and there was no one similar on the ballot. In the latter case, 71 percent of voters used their second choice, and again this decision made sense: It was a real race, and the anti-incumbent candidates had strong crossover support. 

So, to recap: Jacobs says that it’s “just unrealistic” to expect that more than 25-33 percent of voters will rank more than one candidate, based on unspecified research he has seen. But the actual data from an actual recent Minneapolis election contradict this assertion, showing that 63-70 percent of voters whose first choice was not elected had a second choice on their ballot, and it was counted. Of the 13 City Council races, 10 saw second-choice usage of 50 percent or greater. 

It’s not as if the sources of these data are difficult to find.  They are on the City of Minneapolis and Minnesota Secretary of State’s websites.  There’s no need to hypothesize about voter behavior in ranked-choice elections in Minneapolis – just look at the data.

Robin Garwood is a policy aide to Second Ward Council Member Cam Gordon and a board member of FairVote Minnesota.

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