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Confused about ranked-choice voting? Let’s sort it out

Today MinnPost kicks off an occasional series exploring RCV, its history, arguments for and against and how it is affecting the Minneapolis mayoral race.

A sample ballot from the website FairVote Minnesota.
FairVote Minnesota

First in an occasional series on ranked-choice voting.

Are you ready for the first really big test of ranked-choice voting (RCV) in Minnesota?

Minneapolis and St. Paul have both moved into the vanguard of cities experimenting with ranked-choice voting, which in the past was often referred to as “instant-runoff voting” or IRV. (I liked IRV better because Irv was my dad’s name and because, for me, the idea that this method creates a series of instant runoffs until there are only two, and finally, one candidate remaining also seems like a good start to explaining how it works. But pretty much everyone seems to have agreed to call it “ranked-choice voting.”)

Being MinnPost readers, and therefore among the info-elite, you very likely have heard about this and probably have some idea how it works. Perhaps you have dipped a toe into the arguments for and against ranked-choice voting.

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Today (in fact, with this very piece you are now reading) MinnPost kicks off an occasional series exploring RCV including its history, how it works, arguments for and against, how it is affecting the campaigns in the Minneapolis mayoral race, and some speculation on how it might affect the outcome.

In November, Minneapolis and St. Paul will both employ RCV. Because of the open mayoral seat in Minneapolis (the first no-incumbent mayoral race in Minnesota’s biggest city in 20 years) and because of the huge field of candidates in that race, the success or failure of RCV in Minneapolis in November will be the biggest trial yet for RCV in Minnesota.

If you don’t live and vote in either of the Minnesota’s big cities, you might still want to pay some attention to this new voting system because the effort to adopt RCV for statewide elections will continue, and the performance of RCV this November will surely be a talking point both for and against the expansion of the system.

But if you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, if you plan to vote in November and if you want to maximize the impact that your support might have, you need to figure out not only whom you support for mayor or city council but who are your second and third choices. You don’t have to rank three choices, but you really should.

If you think — as many people to whom I have spoken in working on this issue seem to — that you can help your favorite candidate more by listing only him or her, and leaving the second and third choice options blank, you are wrong. But more on that later.

‘First past the post’

In the democratic world, many systems of government and election procedures thrive. By far the most common system in the United States is the one sometimes called “first past the post,” in which each voter votes for one candidate and the candidate who gets a plurality wins, even if — in the case of a multiple candidate field — the winner gets less than a majority of the votes.

There are exceptions, other than RCV. For example, in Georgia they use a double runoff (but not instant runoff) system. If there is a contested party primary with more than two candidates, in either party, and no one gets a majority of the vote, they hold another election a couple of weeks later between the top two finishers, so each party gets a nominee who has won a majority of the intra-party vote (although, very often, the runoff has a much lower turnout than the first). Then, in the November general election, if there are more than two parties and no candidates gets a majority of the total vote on that round, they have another runoff to guarantee a majority winner. So it is possible — and not just possible, this happened in the 2008 U.S. Senate race — for the election to take four rounds. In the aforementioned 2008 Senate race, the final round had to be held in December.

Effective DemocracyIn Minnesota, our current governor, Mark Dayton, was elected in 2010 with less than 44 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In fact, no Minnesota governor has been elected with a majority vote since Arne Carlson in 1994, five gubernatorial cycles back. Minnesota is unusual in this regard (and many others) because over the past 20 years, it has featured three substantial (legally “major”) parties—all three of which have fielded credible candidates for governor in all of those races, which naturally makes it harder for any candidate to win an outright majority.

For some people, this is a problem that muddies up the plurality winner’s mandate to govern, at least symbolically, and it leaves supporters of the runner-up thinking that their candidate might have won if their candidate had been able to go one-on-one against the winner.

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One of the arguments for ranked-choice voting — although the argument is not perfect — is that it greatly increases the likelihood that the winner of an election will have majority support and whatever additional democratic legitimacy comes with that fact. That is one of the chief arguments in favor of ranked-choice voting. There are others, and arguments against RCV (including the argument that RCV does not actually guarantee a majority winner) that will be covered in subsequent installments of this occasional series.

For today, to keep this short, let’s just settle for a quick overview of the history of RVC and of where it is has been used.

RCV history

The system that became ranked-choice voting was devised by Massachusetts-based architect William Robert Ware in 1871. RCV (although not in its current form) was first used in Australia in 1893 in local elections, and first used nationally, also in Australia, in 1918. RCV is still used there in elections for the lower house of the national legislature. In several other nations (including Britain) various forms of RCV are used by parties in choosing their nominees.  

In the United States, in addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul, RCV is used in municipal elections in two other big cities —  San Francisco and Oakland. It was adopted by referendum in Burlington, Vt., in 2005, used in a couple of mayoral elections, but then repealed (also by referendum) in 2010 after an outcome in which the winner did not receive a plurality on the first round. RCV is not currently used statewide in any U.S. state.

In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the question of whether to adopt RCV was submitted to the electorate as a city charter amendment. Minneapolis said yes in 2006 with 65 percent of voters in favor. St. Paul said yes in 2009 by a much closer 52-47.

Let’s leave it at that until the next installment.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.