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

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

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

“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.

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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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