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Now it’s time for electoral reform

REUTERS/Darren Hauck
Maine voters have taken a bold step toward changing the broken electoral system that rewards extremism and ignores the will of the majority. Now it’s time for Minnesota and the rest of our country to follow their lead.

This presidential race is forcing many Americans to take a good, hard look at the electoral system in place – and how it failed them. Donald Trump won but lost the popular vote; he won a primary in which most Republicans voted for someone else. Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary, but many Bernie Sanders supporters believed the process was rigged. By all measures, the campaign was one of the most divisive and polarizing in the history of American electoral politics.

Jeanne Massey

The result? Nearly half of all eligible voters felt excluded by both Trump and Clinton and simply stayed home (an estimated 47 percent, which is substantially more than during the past two presidential elections). Others voted, in vain, for third-party candidates. In fact, nearly 5 percent of voters split the majority votes and, wittingly or unwittingly, played the “spoiler.”

And so we must ask, “Why?”

Pundits will fill the airwaves, social media sites, and newspaper opinion pages for weeks pondering that question. We hope a few will look beneath the obvious answers to what we at FairVote Minnesota believe is the real reason: our broken electoral system.

Imagine a more effective system

Jeffrey Peterson
Jeffrey Peterson

No matter whom you did or didn’t vote for, this election is a wake-up call for our country. How can we accept an electoral system in which fewer and fewer Americans have faith?  

Imagine, instead, a democracy in which:

  • Party nominees are selected on the basis of majority choice, not “last man standing.”
  • Campaigns are based on civil and substantive dialogue and debate.
  • Candidates are rewarded for reaching beyond their base to appeal to a broad majority of voters – and punished by the loss of votes for waging negative attacks on their opponents.
  • Voters have more than just two candidates to choose from, and they can vote for the candidate that best represents their values without fear of helping elect the candidate they like the least.
  • More voters turn out because they are excited by the range of choices on the ballot and have someone to vote for, not against.
  • Winners are elected by a majority of voters.
  • Compromises are sought, not shunned.
  • Our nation benefits from the best ideas and most collaborative leaders.

Maine voters choose ranked-choice voting

This vision of a better democracy has just become a reality in Maine. Voters there – fatigued by decades of governors elected with a mere minority of voters – decided it was time to fix their broken system by adopting ranked-choice voting.

Many cities in the U.S. – including Minneapolis and St. Paul – use and love RCV, but Maine took it to the next level. Passage of the statewide ballot measure means anyone running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, state Senate or state House seats in Maine must be elected by a majority of voters.

Maine has taken a bold step toward changing the broken electoral system that rewards extremism and ignores the will of the majority. Now it’s time for Minnesota and the rest of our country to follow their lead. We at FairVote Minnesota believe if enough cities lead, states will follow. And when enough states lead, the nation will follow.

Instead of giving up on our democracy, do something concrete to make it work better! Ask your city councilors and mayors to adopt RCV for your local elections and urge your legislators to pass a local-options bill to give all Minnesota communities the freedom to use RCV if they wish.

Our constitutional democracy demands our participation – not just during elections, but all the time. We must keep working together for electoral reform to ensure that our leaders represent all of us. Reform also will help to ensure that our best and brightest do not cynically shut their hearts and minds to the democratic process altogether.

To be sure, RCV is just one of the changes we need to restore our democracy. We at FairVote Minnesota, including the many people who have joined our ranks, look forward to collaborating with others working to ensure fair, voter-driven, participatory and inclusive elections. Please join us!

Jeanne Massey is the executive director of FairVote Minnesota. Jeff Peterson is the board chair of FairVote Minnesota.


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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/07/2016 - 09:39 am.


    I realize this is a “Community Voices” piece, but does that mean that Minnpost does not exercise any editorial discretion? Are “Community Voices” contributors allowed to make outright falsehoods?

    I’m talking, of course about FairVote’s often-repeated false claim that RCV produces majority winners. One need look no further than the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election to see that this is false. Betsy Hodges was elected mayor but only received 48.95 percent of the vote. 51.05 percent of voters who cast valid ballots did not vote for Hodges.,_2013

    Do better, Minnpost.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 12/07/2016 - 11:43 am.

      Use facts, please

      Your analysis is incomplete and, thus, incorrect.

      RCV vote counting and winning hasn’t been clearly described, so people have the wrong idea. An RCV election is counted as if it were a series of runoff elections. At each step, the number of votes cast for a viable (remaining) candidate is counted. If voters from a previous round don’t have a vote in this round, then the total voting is lower. That’s the same as people not going back to the polls for the next runoff in traditional runoff elections.

      (1) The final round in an RCV election is when a candidate has a majority of the votes counted (cast) in that round.

      (2) The main reason Minneapolis’s RCV elections have had fewer votes counted in the final round is the hardware and software limitation. When the city gets machines and software that can allow voters to rank (many) more than three candidates, voters won’t have that artificial constraint. Then, if they choose to rank fewer than the maximum, it’ll really be the same as deciding not to go back to the polls for a runoff election.

      (3) An ancillary problem in 2013 was the extremely low threshold to getting on the ballot for Mayor. Ranking among 35 candidates who filed plus the three-rankings ballot/software limit was nuts, but there it was. The higher ballot access threshold in 2017 should make for a different kind of Mayor election.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/07/2016 - 01:57 pm.

        Complete and correct

        According to your explanation, not voting for one of the one of the finalists is the same as not going back to the polls to vote. In order words, if you voted for the wrong people, your vote doesn’t count. That is disgusting and offensive.

        Under the traditional primary system, a voter who chooses someone who does not advance can still vote for one of the other candidates in the general election. Under RCV, they are disenfranchised. You have just explained why RCV is a horrible, undemocratic voting system.

        In an actual democracy – even with RCV – if you cast a valid ballot, your vote counts even if you voted for the wrong people. Despite your convoluted explanation and attempt to disenfranchise voters, the determination of whether a majority exists depends on whether a candidate receives 50 percent + 1 of votes cast. RCV does not ensure that, as evidenced by the mayoral election. That is the complete and correct analysis.

        For the record, Mr. Bearman is the secretary for Fairvote.

        • Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 12/08/2016 - 11:32 am.

          Mr. Bearman

          As I read his comments, which align with my understanding of RCV, a fully ranked choice ballot would not discount any vote.

          If I, for example, rank candidates 1-7 then this is the same as having (potentially) 5 primaries and one final election where I show up for each of them and vote for my first choice. My vote would always count for as long as one of my ranked candidated remained in the race (which would be always). Same as with a primary.

          If the choice is limited to less than a full ranking of every candidate, then yes it is possible that someone’s vote would not count or the final winner would be elected with less than a majority, as you cite in the most recent Mpls mayoral election.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/09/2016 - 03:39 pm.


            Both your understanding and Mr. Bearman’s explanation are wrong. His attempt to blame the limited number of choices for preventing majority winners is another falsehood.

            The only way you can ensure majority winners under RCV is to require every single voter to rank every single candidate on the ballot. You would be required to rank every racist and homophobe running. If David Duke was on the ballot, you would be required to cast a vote for him.

            Fortunately, we live in a democracy that was not set up under FairVote’s rules, and are not compelled to vote for anyone we don’t want to. That shouldn’t mean you get disenfranchised. Under a traditional voting system, you won’t be. If you vote for a candidate that votes in the primary, you still get to vote in the general no matter how poorly that candidate does. RCV takes away that choice.

            Of course, even if your vote is exhausted and FairVote thinks you have been disenfranchised that doesn’t make it so. If you cast a valid ballot, your vote counts, even if Fairvote wants to say you have been disenfranchised in order to maintain its false claim of producing majorities.

  2. Submitted by Chris Vogtman on 12/07/2016 - 09:53 am.

    RCV Suppresses Voter Turnout

    You start your article with the claim that an estimated 47% of voters stayed home. While I can’t disagree with you that many believe our voting system is broken and are disenchanted with it, RCV is not the right solution.

    There have been many studies that RCV actually suppresses voter turnout. San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Political Science Jason McDaniel studied mayoral elections from 1995 to 2011. His study concluded: “The analysis revealed a significant relationship between RCV and decreased turnout among black and white voters, younger voters and voters who lacked a high school education. RCV did not have a significant impact on more experienced voters, who had the highest levels of education and interest in the political process.”

    That directly opposes your initial statement of trying to get out the vote. Couldn’t it be more simply the electorate is more plainly sick of the appearance of get-nothing-done politics – whether that’s the real case or not? We too often tend to label people left or right. The reality is the majority is in the middle with a slight lean left or right depending on the particular issues. Those who fall hard left or hard right are often blind to the common realities … issues that are real-life realities aren’t decided by politics, they are decided by common sense. And the truth is, there’s not much common sense left in Washington.

    Bring us more choice and more common sense politicians who are in it for hard-working blue collar or white-collar Americans and not in it for themselves. I, for one, am sick of the ego-stroking candidates … Trump, Clintons, Bush(s). Are our leaders really looking out for our self-interests or theirs? And that brings me back to my point … common sense was lost long ago in politics and replaced with divisiveness, who has deeper pockets and a name. And for me, that’s the issue with low turnout. I don’t have any studies to back that up, just my common sense.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/07/2016 - 10:39 am.

    Majority winners?

    RCV did not produce a majority winner in the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election. Betsy Hodges was elected with 48.95 percent of the vote. FairVote needs to stop making this claim

  4. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 12/07/2016 - 11:55 am.

    RCV is not the answer

    Not only does RCV not produce majority winners, but also entrenches the ruling party in that area. When you look at the RCV races for Minneapolis mayor, how many were DFLers? The same would probably be for the other side of the aisle as well.
    This piece shows disenfranchisement of the presidential election from liberal writers. Wow, shocker! But to complain that the choices given would be solved by RCV is purely false. Look at what the Democrats did to Bernie Sanders. Do you think a major party really wants to put up more candidates that dilute their chance of holding that office?
    If you want to change the system, work within the system. If you don’t like the candidates presented, work to get the candidates you want. Part of being in a representative democracy is that you can get out voted by others and you have to accept that.

  5. Submitted by John Wheelock on 12/07/2016 - 12:30 pm.


    I want to see much, much shorter campaigns.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/07/2016 - 12:43 pm.


    ” Party nominees are selected on the basis of majority choice, not “last man standing.””

    If most people don’t favor a specific nominee, RCV nor any other system of voting can change that.

    “Campaigns are based on civil and substantive dialogue and debate.”

    Our experience locally has been that RCV tends to cloud up issues and differences to the point where we don’t know what candidates stand for.

    “Candidates are rewarded for reaching beyond their base to appeal to a broad majority of voters – and punished by the loss of votes for waging negative attacks on their opponents.”

    Just so. Candidate are rewarded for clouding up their views, for not expressing themselves clearly for fear of alienating voters.

    ” Voters have more than just two candidates to choose from, and they can vote for the candidate that best represents their values without fear of helping elect the candidate they like the least.”

    Voters can vote for the best candidate now. What RCV does is force voters to vote for lesser candidates, often candidates they don’t like at all.

    ” More voters turn out because they are excited by the range of choices on the ballot and have someone to vote for, not against.”

    Many voters are single issue voters motivated by negative advertising. RCV, because it clouds issues makes it difficult to vote negatively, to vote against policies.

    “Winners are elected by a majority of voters.”

    If a majority of voters does not support a candidate, no process can ever change that.

    “Compromises are sought, not shunned.”

    Again, because RCV smooths over differences, makes negativity, it’s hard to know what one is voting for.

    “Our nation benefits from the best ideas and most collaborative leaders.”

    Which is it? Best ideas prevailing? Or collaboration prevailing? You can’t really have both.

  7. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 12/07/2016 - 02:06 pm.

    RCV Is Not A True Majority

    The only good thing that emerges from the Republicans taking the Senate and keeping the House, is that Ranked Choice Voting remains a pariah in the Legislature. Campaigns remain civil and issue focused only when candidates wisely choose to do so, not because RCV creates civility.

    Adding second and third choice votes is not a true majority. Governors and mayors who win with a plurality govern just as successfully as those with a majority. One does not earn greater credibility or authority or a mandate to govern because RCV gives you a manufactured majority.

    Mayor Hodges got the most first choice votes so her win was accepted by all. I suspect it might have been a different story has she finished second or third and then been declared the winner instead of the candidate(s) who received more first place votes.

  8. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/07/2016 - 02:11 pm.


    The good news is that Minnesotans seem to have figured out that RCV is a terrible system, as Duluth voters overwhelmingly rejected it

    There is also a move afoot to repeal RCV in St. Paul:

    Of course, St. Paul should not have never been stuck with it in the first place. Fairvote was found to have engaged in “multiple and deliberate” attempts to mislead voters to get the ballot initiative passed.

  9. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 12/08/2016 - 03:13 pm.


    There was a letter in the Strib today that expressed concern over transparency and ability to hand recount with RCV. As noted above, the implementation of RCV without the option to rank ALL candidates in a race also has downsides. The study by SFSU concluding that reduced turnout by some voter groups is worrisome.

    But a terrible system? It’s clear some commenters are passionately and vehemently opposed to any form of RCV. While admitting to the drawbacks, I think there are enough concerns with the current system to merit informed and thoughtul consideration of how it may be improved, with some form of RCV being part of the conversation.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/09/2016 - 03:43 pm.


      It doesn’t seem terrible yet because it hasn’t altered election results. When that happens, you will see how terrible it is. Burlington Vermont (home of Bernie Sanders -well, one of his 3 homes) had a disastrous election when a candidate without the most first-place votes won. His legitimacy was severely undermined, and the city repealed RCV.

      RCV is a (very bad) solution in search of a problem.

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