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Race, class and RCV: Why the Jacobs-Miller study is largely irrelevant

The race and class divide has long been with us — with or without ranked choice voting.

No voting system, whether it be RCV or the old one that it replaced in Minneapolis, is going to rectify or mitigate the racial-class inequities that already exist in this country.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
schultz portrait
David Schultz

Race and class structurally divide the United States. Economically we live in two nations separate but unequal, with political power and privilege fractured along this divide. Thus it comes as no surprise that professors Larry Jacobs and Joanne Miller recently found that the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) by voters in the 2013 Minneapolis elections largely tracked this class and racial divide. Conceding that their statistics are largely correct, their analysis and conclusions are largely irrelevant to the debate about RCV, voting, or political power in Minneapolis or the United States.

First, there is no debate that race and class divide America. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office study found that the after-tax income gap (after calculating in transfer payments and welfare) between the top 1 percent of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1979. Between 1973 and 2007, after-tax income for the top 1 percent increased by 275 percent. For the bottom quintile it was merely 18 percent, while for middle class or middle three quintiles it increased by not quite 40 percent. According to the Census Bureau, the median family income fell in 2012 from $51,100 to $51,017, with average Americans earning less now than they did in real dollars in 1989. However, there is some good news. Since 2009, the income of the wealthiest 1 percent has increased by 31 percent.

Wealth also tells the story

But income only tells part of the story. Maldistributions in wealth are exacerbated and growing. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the top 1 percent controls almost 34 percent of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3 percent in 2007. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Since 2007 the wealth gap has increased as the value of American homes – the single largest source of wealth for most Americans – has eroded. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.

According to an April 2013 Pew Research Center report titled “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%,” since the crash of 2008, the “mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.” The richest have recovered nicely from the Great Recession, the rest of us have not done so well. Moreover, the income gap has a racial component. A recent Census Bureau report stated that in 2012 the median household income for whites was $57,009, for Hispanics it was $39,005 and for blacks $33,321.

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The wealth disparities across race were even worse. A policy brief from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. For the few African-Americans and whites at the same income level, the latter had wealth at least three if not more times that of the former.

No change since Brown

Repeatedly, the evidence suggests that we remain as racially divided today as we were 60 years ago when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision supposedly desegregated America’s schools and launched a Civil Rights revolution. Books such as “American Apartheid,” by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, and  “Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City,” by Paul Jargowsky document the racial segregation of contemporary America, and Andrew Hacker’s “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal” describes the contrasting social worlds of America. Closer to home, it was 20 years ago while I was working with john a. powell at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty that we documented Minneapolis as one of the three most racially segregated cities in America.

The economic and social forces that divide America have long been known to politically allocate power. As I point out in my new book, “Election Law and Democratic Theory,” political scientists since the 1950s in books such as “The American Voter,” by Angus Campbell; “The New American Voter,” by Warren Miller and Merrill Shanks; “The American Voter Revisited,” by Michael Lewis-Beck; and “The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy,” by Kay Lehman Schlozman, all point to the racial and class divide in terms of who votes or participates in America, using the electoral systems replaced by RCV and which Jacobs and Miller seem to endorse. Furthermore, E.E. Schattschneider’s “The Semisovereign People,” Theodore J. Lowi’s “The End of Liberalism,” Grant McConnell’s “Private Power and American Democracy,” Charles Lindblom’s “Politics and Markets,” and Robert Dahl’s “Democracy and Critics” are classics by noted political scientists documenting the class and often racial bias in our political system over the past 50 years.

RCV is no panacea

So what is the point?  No voting system, whether it be RCV or the old one that it replaced in Minneapolis, is going to rectify or mitigate the racial-class inequities that already exist in this country. To conclude as Jacobs and Miller did that RCV “leaves open the well-documented voting gap” and reveals “differences in participation between communities of color and the poor vs. their white and affluent counterparts” (quoting from their Feb. 12 Star Tribune commentary) largely misses the point. That voting gap existed before the implementation of RCV and there is no indication that the system it replaced did anything to ameliorate the gap.

Their study seems to imply that RCV caused the voting gap or that RCV was supposed to address the voting gap but didn’t. Jacobs and Miller deserve credit for pointing out that there is a class and racial gap in voting in Minneapolis, but that is nothing new or novel. Nor is their argument that more education is necessary to teach people how to use RCV. I as much said that four years ago in the initial study of RCV in Minneapolis.

Finally, the Jacobs-Miller study uses the wrong baseline for assessing RCV. They point to the low participation rates among the poor and people of color in the 2013 Minneapolis elections as a flaw with RCV. But compared to what, the turnout in other general elections or in primaries? If we compare to primaries, the turnout was much greater, whereas with the former a small band of white affluents or party insiders dominated the selection process. If we compare to other general elections, then it is not so clear that their results are statistically significant, especially based on one election.

RCV is not a panacea for all that ails American democracy. The core issue is how class, race, and to some extent gender, allocate political power and influence in the United States. RCV cannot fix these structural inequalities, but it certainly did not cause them – as the Jacobs and Miller study seems to imply.

David Schultz is Hamline University Professor of Political Science and author of the “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). After the 2008 election he conducted an evaluation of the implementation of RCV voting for the city of Minneapolis.


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