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

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
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.
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.

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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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/17/2014 - 08:28 am.


    Did you actually read the Jacobs/Miller article? I just re-read it and I have no idea how the arguments you make relate to it. You are arguing against a strawman.

    They aren’t saying that RCV caused these problems. Rather, they are saying that the claims of RCV supporters are exaggerated or simply are not true.

    My biggest problem with RCV isn’t the system itself, but the dishonesty of its supporters. How many times did we here the false claim that RCV ensures majority winners? One would think that Hodges plurality win in Minneapolis would put an end to that talk, but not so much as it turns out. People get upset when voter ID supporters use false claims to try and change voting laws. RCV advocates should be held to the same standard.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/17/2014 - 09:32 am.

    The promises of Fairvote…

    …are not the promises of RCV. Mr. Schulz casts some welcome light on the subject, whereas most observers seem to have favored heat in the ongoing discussion of RCV.

    Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Miller have confused RCV with its advocates in their article’s statements… “RCV…falls short of its promise to improve participation”, and “for now, it leaves open the well-documented voting gap”.

    RCV never made those promises, although advocates may have. Fairvote, without whose efforts RCV would probably not be in place in Minneapolis, did engage in some exaggeration, in their enthusiasm. They deserve credit, but they would serve the cause even better if they scaled back in the promises department.

    No reasonable person would have expected that fundamental voting disparities were going to be changed by merely modifying the rules of the voting system.

    Fundamental voting disparities are caused by fundamental economic and political disparities, not by voting system rules.

    See for a more realistic analysis of how RCV affects election outcomes by counterbalancing money advantages, and by overcoming the pernicious effects of vote-splitting in minority communities.

    Recent election results seem to indicate that RCV opens the door to public office to candidates who, in years past, would have been marginalized in the traditional system. We don’t have to go far afield for examples: note the newcomers to the Minneapolis City Council !!

    I agree with Mr. Hintz above that the same measures should be used to weigh the claims of RCV supporters as well as, e.g., voter ID supporters. Fairvote shouldn’t get a pass. But don’t reject RCV and its manifest benefits because you’re p*ssed off at Fairvote !!

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/17/2014 - 09:59 am.


    Another addition to the lengthening list of problems RCV doesn’t solve. Supporters have now retreated from their former position that ranked choice voting solves all the problems of the world but now the rest of us are wondering whether it solves any of them. Other than the distressing tendency of split electorates to elect Republican governors of course.

  4. Submitted by John Hottinger on 02/17/2014 - 02:59 pm.


    Thank you Professor Schultz for your analysis…it separates the issues well, points out the obvious flaws in the Jacobs/Miller opinion piece and provides a common sense discussion base outside the flamboyant overstatements so often made in this debate. Your final paragraph summarizes the realities and Mr.Titterud’s remarks provide some valuable additional perspective.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/18/2014 - 06:21 am.


    RCV supporters are very willing to take indiscriminate credit for things that happen under the system while distancing themselves from the linked downsides from those very things. We are told that RCV opens up the system to more candidate, while blaming the problem with the excessive number of candidates in Minneapolis on low filing fees.

    RCV appeals to DFLer’s because it is consistent with a DFL view of the world. It plays to things that the DFL likes to pay lip service, such as making negative campaigning more difficult. It’s suspiciously popular among professors for whom it’s complications provides grist for abstruse papers. But when you get down to it, nobody really has a coherent argument for it, or at least one that doesn’t shimmer away the moment you try to reach for it, while in the meantime it distorts the way most voters think.

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