Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Ranked-choice voting could restore health to our state’s body politic

Ranked-choice voting aligns the candidates’ interests in getting elected with the electorate’s goal to have a functioning government after inaugural day.

nelson photo
Dr. Glen Nelson

Something refreshing is happening in the contest to determine who will be the next mayor of Minnesota’s largest city: The candidates are engaged in a discussion about the future of the city. Rather than constantly attacking fellow opponents, each candidate is competing to share his or her vision for the kind of city Minneapolis can become over the next four years.

We are fortunate that the election will take place in the context of ranked-choice voting. However, most of our electoral system has a disease that ranked-choice voting can cure.

As a student of medicine, I was trained to observe “signs and symptoms” in patients in order to make a diagnosis and initiate treatment. Examining Minnesota’s body politic, I note some worrisome signs and symptoms:

  • In recent times, we have seen our state leaders allowing the longest government shutdown in the last decade and took 20 painful days to finally end their deadlock.
  • Dysfunctional partisan gridlock caused by extreme elements of both parties.
  • Increasingly vitriol and negative political campaign advertising.
  • For the fourth consecutive time, we have elected a governor with the support of less than half of the votes cast.

Just as diseases cause symptoms, I believe these political symptoms point to an illness that is debilitating to our democracy. I believe the etiology of the illness stems from the fact that our electoral system is no longer serving our interests as citizens. Once praised as a model of “good government,” Minnesota is now suffering instability, confusion and gridlock – and our economic and social well-being is at risk.

Article continues after advertisement

And Minnesota is not alone. These same symptoms can be seen across the country and at every level of our political process. To get elected these days, politicians of both major parties must pander to the ideological extremes to capture their party’s nomination. Phase two of a successful campaign almost always involves unleashing a torrent of negative campaigning that has little to do with persuading voters why one is qualified, but instead aims to persuade them not to vote for the other candidates.

Damaging to democracy

Follow this algorithm and you stand a good chance of getting your party’s nomination and of winning the general election, even if you don’t garner the support of a majority of the voters. Worse still, after you are elected, you will be bullied by your party to take the party line even if it’s inconsistent with your best judgment about achieving political solutions. The reality is that our current political and elective process is actually damaging the long-term health of democracy.

Playing to “the base” makes sense in a system where some elections are won with as little as 30 percent of the vote. But it’s a poor way to elect leaders to govern an entire city, state or nation. A politician beholden to his or her base is bound by a web of single-issue commitments that make reaching consensus nearly impossible. Since neither side can compromise, problems are simply pushed off to the future when their solution is often more difficult. Even minor problems become intractable, since it can be understandably hard to work with members of a political party that just last week was questioning your patriotism/intelligence/character in ads blaring from every radio, television and computer.

In an ideal world, elected officials would use judgment instead of ideology as they serve their constituents. Individuals, even the most rational and informed among us, sometimes make reactive choices that provide short-term benefits but at the cost of long-term harm to their health or their finances. The challenge – in medicine and in politics – is to align short- and long-term interests so that choices provide both immediate and lasting benefits.

My prescription for Minnesota’s (and the country’s) electoral health would read, “Adopt Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Take once every election.”  

Like a runoff but in a single election

Ranked-choice voting aligns the candidates’ interests in getting elected with the electorate’s goal to have a functioning government after inaugural day. It’s the idea where voters “rank” their electoral preferences – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. – and that those choices are used to ensure that each election is won by a candidate with a majority of the vote: more than 50 percent of those voting. In practice, RCV works like a runoff but happens in a single election, thus saving money and maximizing voter participation.

Adopting RCV will require voter education, and new technology in our voting machines – as cities using RCV are demonstrating. These actions will have an immediate and positive effect on both elections and governing. RCV will promote political competition, encourage candidates who wish to seek constructive, bipartisan solutions and even run as independents. It will bring new ideas to the electoral process by eliminating the “spoiler” dynamic and “wasted vote” syndrome that afflict the current system.

Elections should encourage innovative proposals that challenge narrow partisan solutions to serious public challenges. In health care, educated patients with access to new technology have better outcomes. The same principles apply to voters:  Informed decisions plus enabling technology equals equitable electoral outcomes.

Appeal to base AND reach out

RCV will change the calculation of how to win an election; candidates will quickly realize that the way to win is to appeal to the base and also to reach out beyond that cohort in order to achieve the 50 percent threshold in a multi-candidate race. In that environment, negative campaigning and single-issue promises to the base look a lot less attractive. Indeed, there will be a positive benefit – measured by votes in the ballot box – for each candidate to be an acceptable second choice to as many people as possible.

Giving candidates a ballot-box reason to reach beyond their base deters extremism, instead prompting greater civility and cross-partisan collaboration. It encourages more thoughtful, less divisive campaigning, and fewer “litmus tests” that tie the hands of elected officials. Finally, it elects officials who know on day one that they take office with the support of a majority of voters and thus can govern from a solid foundation of consensus-making and problem-solving.

In 2013 ranked-choice voting will help determine the next mayor of Minneapolis. This small change in how we elect our leaders will force candidates to focus on core issues facing the next mayor while limiting, if not eliminating, rancorous personal attacks.

Once Minneapolis completes another successful election cycle in 2013, it’s time for ranked-choice voting to be a part of our state and national discussions. Addressing the electoral process now is like prophylactic health care that can foster a fit and robust democratic process. Left untreated, the current symptoms will probably only worsen and require more radical – and risky – treatments later. That’s bad medicine and bad public policy.

I hope Minnesota moves forward quickly in expanding RCV for statewide elections and that states across the country follow Minnesota’s lead in restoring our democracy to health.

Dr. Glen Nelson is the chairman of GDN Holdings and former vice chairman of Medtronic.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at