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Ranked-choice voting reverses the cynical ‘Who you voting against?’ refrain

Instead of voting against the worst option in a two-person head-to-head contest, we’re ranking the best in a group.

“Who you going to vote against?”  It used to be a good laugh line in talks I gave predicting the outcome of elections, something I did often during a period I co-edited a political newsletter in the ’80s and ’90s.

Wy Spano
Wy Spano

The line was funny for most of that period because it was a surprise.  The expected question was “Who you going to vote for?”Not “Who you going to vote against?”  Only the cynical asked the latter question.  Most people still believed in a positive democratic process.

By 2000, “Who you going to vote against?” was no longer funny. Audiences had learned the meta-strategy of nearly all modern campaigns:

1) Motivate your “base” (i.e., partisans on your side)

 2) Ignore or denigrate their base (i.e., partisans on the other side), and

3) MOST IMPORTANTLY, teach the people who belong to neither base what an incredible scumbag your opponent is.

Not only was “Who you going to vote against?” not funny, it was the key to understanding the sad reality of how modern American elections worked. “Who you going to vote against?” wasn’t humor, it was political science.  (It was also improper grammar; it should have been “Whom are you going to vote against?”  But I was quoting another source for the line, and grammatical purity, like political purity, seemed in decline.)

Enter ranked-choice voting, the system now used for municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Instead of asking voters “Who you going to vote against?” we began asking voters, “Which of these candidates do you think can do the best job?  Rank them 1, 2, 3.”   

The difference between these two approaches is staggering.  Instead of voting against the worst option in a two-person head-to-head contest, we’re ranking the best in a group. 

Ranked-choice voting is big news this year, of course, because of Minneapolis’ wide-open mayor’s race.  In the “good old days,” we would have all the candidates compete in a primary election where very few people, and very, very few people of color, participated.  The two people with the most votes in the primary then faced off in a general election.

Now we’re putting all the candidates on the table at one time and asking voters to pick and rank the best.

Like everything in politics, this new system has its detractors, especially political operatives, analysts, editorialists and bloggers who’ve learned, practiced and commented on the vote-against game during the past three or four decades and who now are somewhat befuddled by the ranked-choice process. 

Most of the academic research on ranked-choice voting comes from California, where its been tried, most prominently in San Francisco.  One thing all researchers there agree on:  Ranked-choice voting significantly lowers negative campaigning.  Apparently candidates are afraid to go negative, wary of driving away second- and third-place votes. We’ve seen that result here as well. Campaigns are, delightfully in my mind, focusing their efforts on telling voters how they plan to make their city better, not on how their opponent will make it worse.

So hats off to Minneapolis and St. Paul, and to other Minnesota cities considering ranked-choice voting.   We ‘ve been lamenting forever the awfulness of negative campaigning. These cities have found a way to do something about it.  They may be leading us back to a time when we can vote for our favorite candidates instead of voting against the one we like the least.

 Wy Spano is founder and co-director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/16/2013 - 10:04 am.

    Beg to differ

    I don’t know what “all researchers there” means, but about 60 seconds on google reveals that there is anything but consensus that RCV lowers negative campaigning. Anyone familiar with the most recent Oakland and San Francisco RCV elections knows those campaigns were extremely negative.

    And again we get the characterization of RCV opponents as political insiders. That doesn’t explain why a number municipalities have repealed RCV after trying it for a few elections, and why there are efforts in San Francisco and Oakland to do the same.

    I also don’t see the problem with voting against a candidate when there is someone I don’t want in. If faced with an election including Michelle Bachmann (conservatives substitute your own horror candidate here) my desire to keep her out of office supersedes anything else.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/16/2013 - 02:39 pm.

      Insiders do fight RCV; so do losers

      Almost every jurisdiction that used Ranked Choice Voting and then rejected it did so because of the sore loser syndrome. Burlington VT is the best recent example of this. But so were NY City in about 1946, Ann Arbor MI, and Hopkins MN about 1960. The “wrong” side won, so the losers got RCV repealed.

      Pierce County WA was an exception to the sore loser syndrome. It was classic insiderism. The elections director fought it from the start, tooth and nail. She dragged her feet on implementation. Then after the election she led the effort to get it repealed. It couldn’t have been more of an insider-led effort.

      Google and read all the details.

      As for voting against a candidate, in an RCV election you can do that by not ranking her if she’s one of three or more candidates. It’s not hard.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2013 - 09:41 am.


        The problem is how you define losers. Candidates that would have won in a democratic election lost under RCV, thus thwarting the will of the electorate. So when the voters had a chance to fix things in a yes/no referendum without RCV, they did. If this was about “losers” how did they win the referenda?

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 10/16/2013 - 11:10 am.

    I want an answer to this question:

    If I do everything right and fill out my ballot legally and properly, what happens to my ballot if none of my three make the first cut?

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/16/2013 - 12:50 pm.


      The first cut only eliminates one candidate – the candidate with the fewest first place votes. If that is who you voted for with your first choice, your ballot reverts to your second choice. If your second choice is eliminated in a subsequent round, your ballot reverts to your third choice. If all three of your choices are eliminated, then your candidates did not win.

      The real controversy surrounds the question of whether RCV guarantees a majority winner. In many RCV elections, including the last Oakland and San Francisco mayoral races (and likely in the upcoming Minneapolis mayoral race), the winner received less than 50 percent of the votes cast, even after reallocation. RCV advocates will tell you that even though the winners may receive less than 50 percent of the votes cast, they are still “majority” winners because they had 50 percent of the remaining votes at the time the RCV threshold was reached. This is possible because they don’t count “exhausted” ballots – valid ballots cast for candidates not remaining at the time the RCV threshold is reached. The Minneapolis winner may only be named on 30 percent of all ballots, but if you disregard the ballots only naming candidates that had been eliminated at the time the RCV threshold was reached, RCV advocates will call it a majority.

      So if you do everything right and fill out your ballot legally and properly, but your candidates don’t make it to the last cut (when the RCV threshold is reached) then your vote doesn’t count. RCV advocates will declare a majority winner, and because you voted for the wrong people, you actually didn’t vote even though you thought you did. Sorry, Kevin.

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/16/2013 - 02:58 pm.

        Wrong four ways

        Don’t be sorry, Mr. Watterson. Mr. Hintz is wrong in at least four ways:
        (1) The Minneapolis charter doesn’t have just “first cut eliminates one candidate” for Ranked Choice Voting elections. It has batch elimination after the first count of all candidates who cannot mathematically win. Read Chapter 167 ( ).

        (2) Mr. Hintz continues to use the definition of “majority” from the rules for winner-takes-all elections in criticizing RCV elections. He refuses to use the definitions in the Charter for RCV elections. That’s like criticizing American League baseball games for not requiring pitchers to bat. Old, outdated, expired definition applied to new system.

        (3) If a voter ranks three candidates and his/her ballot is exhausted before the final result, the voter’s choices DID count. It didn’t elect the winner. But neither did the rankings of a voter whose top choice is there at the end and finished second in Mr. Hintz’s analysis. In other words, if you didn’t rank the winner, he claims, your vote didn’t count … just like voting for the loser in a winner-take-all election.

        (4) He described a candidate who doesn’t win as one of “the wrong people”. What’s “wrong” about them? They were legitimate candidates, they had the right to be on the ballot, and voters had the right to rank them. His description is both wrong and insulting to candidates and voters.

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2013 - 11:54 pm.

          Wrong candidates

          I’m not the one who is pushing a system that discards valid votes if those votes were for non-RCV finalists (“the wrong candidates”) . I want everyone’s votes to count. It is RCV supporters that are insulting voters and candidates.

          The idea that the definition of majority – someone who gets more than half the votes- is old, outdated and expired is hilarious. Orwell would be proud.

  3. Submitted by Nick Wood on 10/16/2013 - 12:00 pm.

    Eric Black — need more info

    Eric Black promised a series of articles on RCV (this past August), and I hope it appears soon.

    Many questions, but here are just two:

    I suspect many voters will simply mark their preferred candidate, without ranking any of the others. What is the implication of doing this?

    What if you mark two candidates, but ignore the rest?

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/17/2013 - 10:03 pm.

      I can answer these questions.

      1. If you choose only one candidate – which may be a popular choice in an election using RCV – your vote is treated just as it would be under the traditional system of counting. In other words, if you voted for the candidate who turns out to be the most popular with the voters, that candidate wins and your vote becomes one of the votes that helped him or her win. But if you voted for a candidate who turns out to be less popular with the electorate, another candidate wins and your vote is discarded. This is no different from the way traditional elections work.

      2. If you choose exactly two candidates, ranking one above the other – which I expect to be another popular choice in an election using RCV – your vote gets two chances to become a winning vote rather than a discarded one, because you have agreed to rank two candidates in the order of your preference. The price for giving your vote a greater chance of winning is that you must accept the possibility that your vote will help your second-choice candidate win if your first-choice candidate loses. Of course, if your first-choice candidate wins, your vote contributes to the win, just as it would under the traditional system of counting. But if your first-choice candidate loses, your vote is not discarded; instead, it is transfered to your second-choice candidate, which increases this candidate’s chance to win. Your vote may still be discarded if both your first-choice candidate and your second-choice candidate turn out to be less popular with the electorate than a candidate you absolutely refused to vote for.

      Both of the options you mentioned are rational choices under the RCV system of counting. However, if your first-choice candidate is somebody you know is highly unlikely to be the most popular with the voters – somebody like “Captain Jack Sparrow” – then it is prudent to have a second choice, for the highly likely event that your favorite candidate will lose.

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