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Ranked-choice voting upholds majority-rule principle, broadens choice and opens up political process

REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot
We don’t miss the August primaries, which almost always produce appallingly low single-digit turnout.

We come from opposite sides of the river, and we disagree about a few things … like which Twin City is the smartest, most vibrant and best looking.

But we’ve always shared essential values, including an unwavering commitment to expanding democracy. All of us have a stake in the future of our cities — and our state — and we all have the right to help shape that feature. That’s why we’re longtime proponents of ranked-choice voting (RCV), which upholds the principle of majority rule, broadens voter choice and opens up the political process to more people.

RCV lets voters rank candidates in order of preference: first choice, second choice, third choice. In a single-seat election, if a candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, he or she wins. If not, the least popular candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots are divided among the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices. If there’s still no majority winner, this process repeats until one candidate gains a majority of support (or until all seats are filled in a multi-seat election).

Smarter, more inclusive system

In local nonpartisan races — like those taking place in Minneapolis and St. Paul this fall — this smarter, more inclusive voting system combines two elections into one. RCV achieves what traditional two-round elections (such as an August primary and a November general election) do — in one cost-effective trip to the polls.

We don’t miss the August primaries, which almost always produce appallingly low single-digit turnout. They’re one reason we were early backers of the RCV movement, and continue to staunchly support it today.

Primaries — particularly municipal primaries — are typically attended by a narrow, unrepresentative slice of the electorate. A study of Boston elections by San Francisco State University professor Richard DeLeon, for example, showed that primary voters are disproportionately older, whiter and wealthier than voters in November general elections. Primaries also give an outsized voice to special interests that activate their base in these elections.

In a democracy — if it’s truly a democracy, and elected office is genuinely a possibility for any bright, committed, passionate and hard-working citizen who yearns to serve — there’s always “culling” of candidates to be done.

The question is, who does the culling? We believe that all eligible voters have the right to help determine the worthiest candidates. By combining the two elections into one higher-turnout election, RCV enhances participatory democracy — giving all voters a chance to winnow the field.

Requiring minimum number of signatures would help too

There are more effective ways to ensure that voters get to choose from a slate of serious candidates than reverting to the antiquated — and exclusionary — two-step plurality system. As FairVote Minnesota advisory board member Richard Carlbom and other voting reform advocates have suggested, requiring candidates to collect a minimum number of signatures would help demonstrate their sincerity about seeking public office and weed out the jokers. And it wouldn’t give an unfair advantage to candidates with more financial resources.

Voters in the Twin Cities (and beyond) understand RCV perfectly well; the 2011 St. Paul election and 2009 Minneapolis election — in which only one single ballot went uncounted — proved that. This fall, with the wide-open, multicandidate mayoral race in Minneapolis and a competitive, high-profile multicandidate city council race in St. Paul, RCV’s advantages will become even clearer — not just to Twin Citians, but outstate Minnesotans as well.

And we’re excited about the long haul. San Francisco, which has now used RCV for a decade, has shown that RCV ultimately produces more diverse and representative local leadership, and we believe that such longer-term benefits will materialize here, too.

We’re prouder than ever to have been on the front lines of the movement that brought RCV — whose promise continues to unfold — to St. Paul and Minneapolis. See you at the polls in November.

 Don Fraser is a former mayor of Minneapolis, and George Latimer is a former mayor of St. Paul.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jack Boyd on 09/16/2013 - 06:50 am.

    New York needs this

    New York City presents a real contrast to this system. It has primaries that decide most elections because it’s a partisan election. Many of those primaries are won with well under 50%. At the same time, the citywide office primaries have runoffs, as is expected this year. Turnout can be really small — less than 10%.

    There is lots of talk of changing the rules, probably to using Ranked Choice Voting in the primary. Very good to read this piece.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/16/2013 - 11:42 am.

    Thanks to you visionaries of the past for coming back to give…

    …your thoughts.

    But why stop there ? Why not come ALL THE WAY back ?

    Why not run again ?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/16/2013 - 04:05 pm.

    It’s good to see these two experienced political figures recognize that something like a primary is necessary to weed out the jokers who decide that $20 is no barrier to becoming a candidate for mayor, in Minneapolis. The recommend that every candidate present a certain number of signatures in a petition supporting their candidacy when filing. Lots of people who are carefully watching the second Minneapolis experiment with RCV have begun to discuss petitions (not $20) as required of all those who would file. If we continue with RCV, we’ll have to add that petition requirement.

    That’s to reduce the number of people the voters have to consider for one office. RCV proponents, including our esteemed former mayors here, tout the glories of not having low-turnout primaries to sift through candidates. But they ignore the powerful impact having too many candidates has on depressing voter turnout in the general election, because of the difficulty of researching all the people running. Too many choices makes any decision more difficult, according to psychologists’ research. Plus, lack of debates (35 candidates on a platform?) means information must be obtained on-line–difficult indeed for those living in poverty, as many minorities do–or in newspapers that cost money.

    In 2013, Minneapolis RCV advocates will not be able to excuse any low voter turnout in November as a function of the lack of a truly viable opponent to the 2009 incumbent RT Rybak. Low turnout this year?: direct result of problems with RCV itself.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/16/2013 - 05:05 pm.

    Upholds the principle of majority rule?

    I am not exactly clear about what the authors mean by “upholds the principle of majority rule,” but if what they mean is that RCV guarantees majority winners (a claim often made by RCV supporters) then what they are saying is not true.

    There is a piece up on Minnpost now (under Minnesota Blog Cabin and written by Tony Petrangelo) which runs the recent Star Tribune mayoral poll though the RCV process. The election was won by Don Samuels,who achieved an RCV “majority” after the process eliminated all but Samuels and the second-place finisher. But Samuels only received 40 percent of the vote. This is because the RCV process typically results in a number of exhausted ballots – ballots that do not name any of the remaining candidates at the time the RCV “majority” is reached. These are valid ballots, as opposed to ballots that are improperly marked, etc., but don’t count because the voters who marked them voted for the wrong people. RCV advocates will claim that Samuels achived a majority by getting a majority of the votes among those cast between Samuels and the second place finishers. But that “majority” is acheived by not counting the more than 20 percent of the valid ballots that did not name either of the RCV finalists.

    This happens in real elections too. The Petrangelo piece cites a Minneapolis counsel election where the winner only got 46 percent after reallocation. There was an RCV “majority” if only the top two candidates are counted, but the 12 percent of voters whose ballots were exchausted did not count.

    The same thing happened in the last Oakland and San Francisco mayoral races. The winners received less than 50 percent of the vote even after reallocation, but RCV advocates declare them to be majority winners by counting only the RCV finalists, and discarding the votes of people who did not choose the finalists with any of their choices.

    I expect the Fairvote board members that frequently post here will again tell me that I don’t understand RCV. I do understand it, and I understand their “majority” argument. I just don’t think that a majority that is achieved by not counting valid votes is a majority. It really is no different than saying that the votes for Horner and others in the 2010 governor’s race don’t count, and that Dayton won a majority over Emmer. You can call it a majority all you want, but the reality in that race (and these RCV races) is that a majority of the people who showed up and cast valid ballots did not choose the winner.

    On a different tangent, in the San Francisco Gate article cited, there is a picture of an Oakland City counselmember who introduced a ballot measure calling for the repeal of RCV in that city. I suspect the reason the article is called “In Defense of Ranked Choice Voting” is because there is a lot of unhappiness with RCV in the cities that have it. While neither San Francisco nor Oakland has repealed RCV yet, it is only a matter of time, as has occurred with other cities where RCV has been implimented and failed.

    The Minneapolis election is shaping up to be a train wreck, which is why RCV advocates are already building in excuses by complaining about the easy ballot access for candidates.

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