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Ranked-choice voting can help rescue Minnesota Nice, if we let it

So St. Paul’s mayor reads a book and finds out that free parking on commercial streets like Grand Avenue costs the rest of the city a lot of extra money. He actually already knew that, but the book helps everyone understand how this cost transfer works. He then proposes putting parking meters on Grand Avenue, a street draining street maintenance funds for everyone. Not surprisingly, people and storeowners in the area oppose the idea. What is surprising … the boorish, low-class, disrespectful manner that people in opposition expressed themselves. Longer-time observers, like me, remember when Minnesotans would only use interrupt and shut-down-the-meeting tactics for really big issues. Now we’re doing it for parking meters? What’s that about?

Wy Spano
Wy Spano

Could it be it’s about Minnesota catching up to the rest of the political system in the U.S.? Most visitors watching Minnesota’s political and civic conversations in the past would leave town telling us that “Minnesota Nice” actually did exist, that people here were much more willing to face and discuss issues civilly than in other parts of the country. If “Minnesota Nice” in politics is a good thing, we’re losing it fast.

We may be learning from the top. The leading presidential candidate of one party refers to a woman he doesn’t like as a “fat pig.” In Minnesota such a remark would have ended a political career, but maybe now it would be OK?

Extremes often prevail in primaries

A major reason for our collective political disrespect is the primary/general election system currently common in the U.S. Primaries are low-turnout affairs where the extremes often prevail. Extremists, of course, have difficulty getting beyond the primaries because the majority of people in the general election think their ideas are cuckoo, which means that in order to win when there are only two candidates left, the task for candidates is not to get people to vote for them and their nutty ideas, the task is getting people to vote against the other candidate. If the public actually understood what you support, they would go bonkers. Campaigns have to be negative to be successful, which also means that success is not predicated on, or even correlated with, telling the truth or making reasonable proposals. Success often comes to those who bark loudest and hate hardest. 

Much of this hasn’t been true in Minnesota. Research shows our campaigns are not yet as negative as in other parts of the country. But we’re getting there. And St. Paul’s parking meters are an example of how we might soon see further growth.

Ranked-choice voting can help all of this because it so fundamentally changes the nature of political campaigns. Instead of head-to-head “who are you going to vote against” elections, in an RCV environment there are a number of potential candidates from whom the electorate gets to choose. The question is not “Which of these two candidates do you like the least?” Instead, the question changes to “Which of these five or 10 candidates do you think can do the best job?” and, most important, rank them. In RCV elections, negative campaigning hurs whoever’s responsible for it.

Resistence in Duluth from party leadership

Political party and campaign experts don’t like ranked-choice voting, so it’s not yet thought of in partisan elections, for the Legislature, Congress, etc. But in Minnesota, parties have had a pretty firm grip on the local election process, even though local elections are technically nonpartisan. RCV has been instituted in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but is facing resistance from some party and union leadership in Duluth, where it will be voted on next week (Nov. 3). 

Some party leaders in the Twin Cities are rethinking their RCV support as well. Prior to RCV the real council elections in the large cities were held at the DFL endorsing conventions. Without DFL endorsement, candidates had little chance to win. Now, DFL endorsing conventions are ending without clear winners. The public, instead of the party, gets to decide who wins.  That phenomenon — giving power to the voters — is making Duluth party leaders work hard against RVC.

In St. Paul’s Ward 2 the campaigns seem to have caught on to the idea that negative campaigning in an RCV election can backfire, but independent expenditure groups backing the two leading candidates haven’t; their badly done negative ads could hurt their candidates, even though the candidates themselves aren’t doing them.

Let’s hope Duluth passes RCV next Tuesday. And let’s hope that activists longing for the good old days when they got to pick the candidates don’t overturn RCV in Minneapolis and St. Paul. No kidding, letting the public have a say isn’t really all that awful.

Wy Spano is the director of the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at Metropolitan State University. 


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/27/2015 - 09:15 am.

    The Power of Fear

    Fear is a very powerful motivator. And change is something we fear the most. Fear causes us to stick with the devil we know, rather than taking a chance on what may be a huge improvement. A lot of people who were very dissatisfied with their health insurance were very opposed to Obamacare, for instance.

    Parking meters will rise on Grand Avenue, and the sun will rise in the east the following morning. If Duluth approves RCV, the sun will continue to rise in the east as well. And they may even find it is an improvement.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/27/2015 - 10:32 am.


    Any system of voting, and maybe any system of anything makes assumptions, some expressed, some implied. Ranked Choice Voting as described here a couple of them.

    First, Wy tells us that RCV works against extremes in politics which is fine if you are a middle of the road type not so fine if your are not.

    Second, Wy tells us RCV favors negative over positive voting. RCV makes it harder to vote against something than for something. One reason, for example, we have a football stadium growing in our midst is that there was no way of voting effectively against it and that was partly because of RCV. Is this a good or bad policy outcome? I don’t know, but when making a choice on RCV, that’s part of the impact of the choice you are making. Maybe I should note here that while RCV has considerable support among Democrats, it has no support among our friends in the other party, because Republicans are mostly negative where governmental action is concerned.

    No system of voting is free of flaws. And we always have to be concerned about how our process choices affect substantive outcomes. What is clear enough to me is that RCV is supported by people who don’t like the choices made under the current system, and I find that a disturbing reason for change. What also bothers me about RCV is that it is a reform than will have only partisan support with no Republican support at all. I am very wary of any change in our election processes that don’t have significant support across the political spectrum. I didn’t like it when Republicans tried to force voter id on us. I don’t think we should be eager to impose our pet voting theories on them.

  3. Submitted by Claire Kirch on 10/27/2015 - 02:50 pm.

    Duluth does not need RCV

    I am not a party leader in Duluth, although my husband is active in DFL politics. I don’t support using RCV methods in local nonpartisan elections – especially in a city like Duluth, where elections are clean, and in hotly-contested races, turnout is high. Why change a system that works for a system that confuses even some of the most intelligent people I know?

    Wy Spano claims that using RCV will result in more civil campaigns and elections. I don’t think so. Campaigns will still be contentious – that’s the nature of the beast. And there will be much more negativity in the aftermath of elections, because there is so much less transparency in the counting and deciding of a winner. Do people know that if Duluth used RCV, we would no longer have election results broken down by precinct because the ballots must be taken to a central place to be counted? And that it might take days? And that people would have to be trained to count the ballots and we would have to trust that they know what they are doing and that the results are accurate?

    Good luck if there’s a recount, like there has been several times in the 21 years I’ve lived here. What a nightmare that would be.

    Plus, and this is something Mr. Spano might not know since, he doesn’t live in Duluth. No matter what the results of the Nov. 3 election, there will still be primaries in Duluth: ISD 709 must hold primaries in contested elections, by state law. How do you think voter turnout will be, if the primaries are only for school board candidates? Contested county, state, and federal elections would also have primaries. Does anyone really think that having two different kinds of ballots would make people more eager to vote? Can you imagine the long lines that would be par for the course at the polling places, with people registering that day, plus people having questions because there are two different ballots?

    Democracy should not be reduced to a mathematical algorithm; there is just too much at stake.

    RCV is not right for Duluth. We don’t need Wy Spano and his Fair Vote Minnesota pals who all have no stake in our community telling Duluthians how to conduct our local elections. I live in Duluth, I care about my community. I am proud of our residents’ voting record, and I am more than sick of outsiders maligning it and us while trying to sell us what I am calling snake oil.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2015 - 05:54 am.


    “Wy Spano claims that using RCV will result in more civil campaigns and elections.”

    What RCV tends to do is blur distinctions, and push people to the middle. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that. What RCV supporters always fail to go on to explain is why lack of clarity and voting in the middle are two things our system of voting should encourage.

  5. Submitted by Claire Kirch on 10/28/2015 - 10:05 am.

    Why are Twin Cities elites pouring money into Duluth’s election?

    So, Fair Vote Minnesota, which is run by some serious power brokers in the Twin Cities, has poured another $40,000 into the Duluth election campaign, after previously spending $74,000 on this local election that concerns Duluth and its residents. $110, 000 total. My question for Mr. Spano is … who has the means to be throwing so much money into an election in a community in which they don’t even live, about a referendum that does not affect their lives? $110,000. Sickening.

    Keep Voting Simple, Vote No. Let’s tell Fair Vote Minnesota that Duluth is not for sale.

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