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2013 election: In Minneapolis, a game changer; in St. Paul, the status quo

Minneapolis’ election was a generation changer preparing the city for the future, while in St. Paul it was an endorsement of the status quo. In both cities, RCV was vindicated.

Betsy Hodges posing with supporters during her Election Night campaign party.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

The mayoral elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul could not have been any more different. One was loud and unscripted, the other peaceful and predictable. Both spoke to the character of the two cities and what they mean for their futures. Minneapolis’ election was a generation changer preparing the city for the future, while in St. Paul it was an endorsement of the status quo holding the city in the past. But in both cases, ranked-choice voting (RCV) successfully did its job.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Critics were wrong when it came to RCV. With RCV and 35 mayoral candidates in Minneapolis, skeptics contended that voters would not be smart enough or would be overwhelmed in their ability to process the information needed to make intelligent choices. There were worries of spoiled ballots, disenfranchisement of the poor and people of color, or widespread dissatisfaction with RCV. That did not happen. Why? 

Minneapolis learned from experience. Four years ago, when Minneapolis first used RCV, I was asked by the City Elections Department to evaluate implementation of the new voting method. My report’s biggest concern was evidence of some voter confusion, but the recommendation was better voter education. The city responded with a great voter-education program; this election significantly reduced voter error and spoiled ballots. Moreover, in St. Paul, part of why the election ran without a hitch is that they, too, learned from the 2009 Minneapolis experiences. For critics of government who say it cannot learn, Minneapolis and St. Paul did, and the results paid off.

Top 6 received nearly 90% of vote

Voters in Minneapolis learned how to adjust to 35 candidates on the ballot. The top six candidates received nearly 90 percent of the total votes cast. Voters demonstrated a capacity to gather information and select candidates whom they preferred and were deemed viable. Moreover, worries that voters would select only vanity candidates and not vote for someone who was one of the finalists also were unnecessary; such voting seemed largely negligible.

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In short, the theoretical and hypothetical worries that the election system would break down did not occur. As a bonus, the Minneapolis experience confirmed a trend from around the country – RCV discourages attacks on opponents, more civil campaigns, and the potential for more cooperation during and perhaps after elections.

Beyond vindicating RCV, the elections in the two cities spoke hugely of their futures and characters.

Minneapolis’s election was about a generational change. It was the older DFL being replaced by a new generation of Democrats. The old labor-led, white establishment DFL lined up behind Mark Andrew, while the new demographics of a racially and politically changing city boosted Hodges.

A generational shift in Minneapolis, not in St. Paul

Andrew was like Frank Skeffington – Edwin O’Connor’s fictional old-line Democrat mayor in “The Last Hurrah” who loses a re-election bid because he does not realize times have changed and he has not. Andrew is a solid and noble DFLer, but he is old school at a time when Minneapolis is changing. With Hodges as mayor and seven new council members, Minneapolis is set for the shift to the future with a new agenda for a new constituency. If Barack Obama in 2008 represented the transition from baby boomer to Gen X and Millennial politics at the national level, this is what happened on Tuesday in Minneapolis.

Not so in St Paul. Chris Coleman is perhaps the last mayor of the old St. Paul DFL. He is part of the old Irish Catholic DFL constituency that his father represented. He represents the past of an insular DFL Party that still controls the city with many council members still playing old-school politics. It is the coalition of traditional labor unions and party insiders. It is the politics of downtown ballpark stadiums and public subsidies for economic development projects. Coleman does not really have an agenda for the future. He is like Robert Redford’s character in “The Candidate” – elected but asking the question, “What do we do now?”  Coleman is the mayor of baby boomers seeking to hang on one more time.

In some ways, the people of both cities got what they wanted, or at least elected mayors suited to their personalities. Minneapolis is the hip, cool, and forward city looking to the future. St. Paul is more stodgy, less prone to change, and more stuck in tradition than its sister across the Mississippi. The mayoral elections represent a tale of two cities and a contrast in the way they handled changing generational politics.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University and the 2013 Leslie A. Whittington national award winner for excellence in public-affairs teaching.


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