This session, the Legislature has the opportunity to pass a sensible, bipartisan bill that would give interested municipalities the freedom and the flexibility to pursue ranked-choice voting (RCV) if they wish.
It’s an opportunity that lawmakers have declined in past years. And much to our disappointment at FairVote Minnesota, our communities have sometimes been used as an excuse: The thoroughly debunked notion that RCV is “too complicated” for voters of color must be put to rest once and for all.
A growing number of Minnesota communities — and other jurisdictions, such as the Minneapolis Public Schools board — are considering RCV for its proven ability to give voters more choice and more power in their elections. Some of these communities, like the increasingly diverse city of Brooklyn Park, are attracted to RCV because it helps improve participation and representation for people of color.
Eliminates the primary
We’ve seen it happen in San Francisco, Oakland, and closer to home, in Minneapolis: RCV eliminates the poorly attended, demographically unrepresentative municipal (nonpartisan) primary election, thereby allowing the crucial “winnowing” of candidates to occur on Election Day in November — when turnout is highest and most diverse. We’ve yet to hear a compelling argument for continuing the separate, expensive, low-turnout primary, which leaves key political decision-making to a handful of older, whiter, wealthier voters (while excluding nearly everyone else).
Ranked-choice voting also encourages campaigning that’s more respectful, inclusive and issue-based. In an RCV election, candidates must be mindful of second-choice votes to win, and therefore have incentive to focus on their own strengths, accomplishments, and ideas instead of attacking their opponents. The candidates who succeed under RCV are not necessarily those with the most money or powerful connections; it’s those who are willing to step outside their traditional “base” and talk to voters they might have ignored under the old system. The result is a political conversation that’s more substantive, wide-ranging, and reflective of the whole community.
And in the long term, RCV helps leadership that looks like the community it’s representing. That’s been the case in San Francisco, where the Board of Supervisors is as diverse as the city itself, and in Minneapolis, whose post-2013 City Council includes a Latina, a council member born in East Africa, and a council member born in Southeast Asia. By eliminating concerns about “vote-splitting,” RCV makes it easier for candidates from historically underrepresented communities to heed the call to public service.
Not ‘too complicated’
Was RCV “too complicated” or “too confusing” for low-income voters or voters of color to use? Not in the least. The vast majority of Minneapolis voters in the 2013 election used the option to rank their choices, and liked it. That held true in the city’s most ethnically diverse ward, Ward 5. (None of this was surprising to those of us who’d been paying attention: Four years earlier, a St. Cloud State University study reported that 97 percent of voters of color found using a ranked ballot simple — compared to a still-impressive 94 percent of white voters. “Persons of color are more likely to understand how RCV functions better than white voters,” the authors wrote.)
In any case, this bill doesn’t compel any jurisdiction to switch to RCV; it merely makes the process simpler, smoother and more consistent for those determined to do so anyway. The measure allows noncharter jurisdictions to use RCV, if they wish, without spending time and money securing special legislative permission, while enabling charter cities to approve it by ordinance. These are decisions best left to local communities and their elected leaders, not state lawmakers.
Just as important, the bill also provides a tested blueprint for RCV implementation, as well as guidelines to ensure that the next generation of voting equipment is RCV-capable. It’s a no-brainer. We hope legislators will respect the right of local communities to decide for themselves whether to use ranked-choice voting — and that they’ll respect the proven ability of all communities to use it well.
Siyad Abdullahi is a health care entrepreneur/CEO and member of the FairVote Minnesota board. Anthony Newby is the executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Also contributing to this piece were Alberto Monserrate, CEO of NewPublica and former president of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board; Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community and former Minneapolis Public Schools Board member; and Bao Vang, CEO of the Hmong American Partnership and member of the FairVote Minnesota board.
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