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Some ranked-choice opponents troubled by loss of nonpartisan primary

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Under ranked-choice voting, all the major decisions — who will be the final two candidates and which of them will take office? — are made on the day when turnout is highest.

Third in an occasional series on ranked-choice voting.

In discussing the arguments for and against ranked-choice voting, I’ve perhaps emphasized too much the urgency of assuring that the winner of an election have a majority of the votes, for whatever benefit such a result might add to the legitimacy of a winner’s mandate to govern and to whatever extent a majority winner might have to govern on behalf of a broader public.

“Majority rule” sounds like a fairly fundamental premise of democracy, but our American system has many exceptions to it built deeply in (take the bizarre Electoral College system, for example, or the various supermajorities required by the Constitution). There’s also this:

If we were considering whether to adopt RCV for statewide elections, the question of majority rule or plurality rule would be more relevant. For statewide elections (as for U.S. senator, governor, statewide constitutional offices) and for legislative elections, Minnesota uses the first-past-the-post, plurality-wins system that is common in most of the country. And, since Minnesota has a fairly strong third party, many of our recent governors and senators have been elected with a plurality, not a majority of the vote.

But since RCV in Minnesota is, for now, mostly about municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul – and most especially about the hotly-contested Minneapolis mayoral race — it is important to note that the system in use for such elections before RCV also virtually guaranteed that the winner would receive a majority of the votes.

The old system, in case you need a reminder, was this: There would be an open, nonpartisan primary in September. Then the two biggest primary vote-getters would face each other one on one in November. In a two-person runoff, leaving aside matters like spoiled ballots or abstentions, the winner would essentially be guaranteed of having a majority of votes cast in the race.

Turnout a factor

The larger argument over whether RCV is an improvement has more elements than just the issue of majority rules. But I asked Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota (the leading advocate of RCV) why, since Minneapolis already had a system that produced a majority winner, she believes RCV is an improvement.

Massey’s main response was about the difference in voter turnout between a primary and a general election. Historically, in the odd-numbered years when municipal elections are held, the November general election turnout is double or more of the turnout for primaries, Massey said.

Here are the turnout figures, expressed as a percentage of the registered voter population of Minneapolis, in the last four quadrennial elections when the mayor’s office was on the ballot.

1993: General: 46 percent; primary 23 percent

1997: General: 46 percent; primary 15 percent

2001: General: 40 percent; primary 27 percent

2005: General: 30 percent; primary 15 percent.

As you can see, it’s normal for about twice as many voters to turn out for the general election in November as for the primary. And, with the primary (which used to be held in September) moved up to the first week in August, the primary turnouts are expected to fall further.

It’s true that both the old nonpartisan primary system and RCV are both designed to produce a majority winner, Massey said. “The reason ranked-choice voting is such a vast improvement is that no one turns out for the primary,” she said.

People who argue against RCV tend to be political insiders who prefer the old system because they find it easier to manipulate. Allowing a relatively few voters to decide for the rest who will be the final two choices makes it much more of an insider game, Massey said.

Better participation?

Under ranked-choice voting, all the major decisions — who will be the final two candidates and which of them will take office? — are made on the day when turnout is highest, so “many, many more voters are participating in the decisions about who’s going to govern,” Massey said.

Effective DemocracyIt also can change the way candidates campaign, requiring them to reach beyond their narrow base, assemble a majority and govern according to that majority.

Over the course of many conversations about RCV in preparing for this series, I had a good one over lunch with Todd Rapp of Himle Rapp & Co., a PR/consulting firm that does a lot of political work. Rapp is the Democrat of the two name partners.

Rapp isn’t rabidly opposed but seems mildly against RCV — “not a big fan” is how he put it — at least on general election day for a reason that hadn’t occurred to me earlier.

Rapp believes that to really get the best kind of mandate to govern, the process has to end with a binary choice. You have to build in a period of at least two or three months at the end of the process for two candidates to identify and explain and clarify and justify their differences and describe their policies, their goals and their visions in a one-on-one environment where the voters understand that they have to choose one or the other.

The pre-existing system did that. The single round of RCV doesn’t, Rapp says. He said RCV might be used on primary day to winnow the field down to the final two. But he wants “two candidates to face off and duke it out” for those last months.

After I had obtained Massey’s argument about the small turnout for primaries, I ran it by Rapp to see if it changed his feeling. He was respectfully unmoved. Massey certainly has a point, he said. Many people vote on general election day and, under his preferred system, those voters would have only two choices.

 That decision not to vote in a primary is, of course, up to those voters. Having the smaller group of more heavily involved voters choose the two finalists isn’t ideal, but he believes that’s what’s necessary to provide a clear choice.

Massey says there are some in RCV circles talking about a two-step process. A primary would be used to winnow the field down to four, then RCV would be used to elect the winner on the final round. But she didn’t sound too excited about it, and said it isn’t currently in use anywhere.

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.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/04/2013 - 01:40 pm.


    Do we like the way the election in Minneapolis is going? Does it offer the voters a clear choice?

    The other day, I was sitting in those mini grandstand seats at the State Fair DFL booth, contemplating my next glass of water at Culligan when I had sort of epiphany. The effect of RCV is to focus so intensively and on so many different levels on the degree of approval we have for candidates, that it makes it virtually impossible to express our disapproval. It allows us to vote for a candidate but makes it very difficult to vote against a candidate.

  2. Submitted by Walt Cygan on 09/04/2013 - 03:59 pm.

    Hand raised

    I will miss the primary this year. One other function that the primary served was to focus attention on the fact that an election was taking place. News media covered the ramp-up to the primary and people got a little more focused on the choices. I think that is missing this year.

    When those of us who oppose RCV have mentioned the issue of 35 candidates on the ballot and the problem of people trying to choose among them, proponents have twisted that into a charge that we are demeaning voters, as if we feel that people can’t handle the challenge. I think that people can research the list of candidates, but will choose not to.

    To me a 35-candidate ballot is like a 35-page memo. The longer a memo is, the less chance there is that people will actually read it. They have the intelligence to read it, but they will doubt that it is worth their time. I’m confident that a 35-candidate ballot with no primary to whittle it down the choices will have the same result. People will choose not to make the effort required to wade through the choices.

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/04/2013 - 05:34 pm.


    “People who argue against RCV tend to be political insiders who prefer the old system because they find it easier to manipulate.”

    How do you even come up with a statement like that? Eric, you have done a good job presenting dueling arguments, but when one side comes up with unsupported nonsense like this, I think as a journalist you have to at least follow up.

  4. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 09/04/2013 - 05:51 pm.

    Why a “binary choice”?

    “[Todd] Rapp believes that to really get the best kind of mandate to govern, the process has to end with a binary choice.”

    How does that give the best kind of mandate? If the two remaining candidates are the most extreme — as many acknowledge happened in the 1993 Minneapolis mayoral primary — then the mass of voters who want a moderate candidate are left without on to vote for. They’re forced either to pick what for them is the lesser of two evils or to abstain.

    Speaking of abstaining, Mr. Black wrote, “In a two-person runoff, leaving aside matters like spoiled ballots or abstentions, the winner would essentially be guaranteed of having a majority of votes cast in the race.”

    Well, you can’t leave aside abstentions. According to some anti-RCV commenters to the second article in this series, abstentions (i.e., leaving second or third rankings blank) detract from the RCV majority. So by that logic, they also have to argue that in a two-person runoff with abstentions, a winner could have less than a majority of those voting in that runoff (general election). Wheere’s the mandate if that happens?

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/05/2013 - 03:18 pm.


      Under RCV its not just blank ballots that are abstentions. You can fill in every available choice on the ballot and still be found to have abstained if you didn’t vote for the right people.

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 09/06/2013 - 11:46 am.

        Redfining words again

        An abstention means not voting when you can. Ranking three candidates is fully complying with the options available in the RCV election.

        What does “the right people” mean anyway? In a first-past-the-post election, whether a primary or a general, does voting for a losing candidate mean you didn’t vote for the “right” people”?

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/06/2013 - 01:03 pm.


          “An abstention means not voting when you can.”

          I agree with that definition. But it is RCV proponents that are redefining words. If you choose three candidates, but none of those candidates are among the RCV finalists (the “right” people) then under RCV, you have abstained. Your vote does not count in the determination of whether the winner got a majority.

          In the first-past-the-post election, even if your candidate didn’t win, your vote always still counts. Not so with RCV.

          Ken, as a Minnesota Fairvote board member, is it part of the voter education program to mis-state the arguments of RCV opponents?

          • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 09/06/2013 - 07:52 pm.

            What? Curioser and curioser.

            Mr. Hintz agrees that abstaining means not voting when you can. Then he writes that ranking three candidates, none of whom ends up being a “finalist”, is abstaining.

            So if you don’t vote you abstain and if you do vote you abstain.

            And in a FPTP election, if you vote for a losing candidate your vote “counts”, but in an RCV election if you rank three candidates and none of them wins you abstained.

            Passing strange indeed.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/05/2013 - 11:20 am.

    We might also consider that those who don’t bother to vote at all qre abstaining (see: the 2009 general election, our first try at RCV, when a vast majority of Minneapolis’s eligible voters refused even to show up at the polls). An abstention is not a “no” vote; it is a non-vote, a refusal to choose among the choices at all. Politicians do it all the time, to avoid seeming to have an opinion on whatever issue is in question.

    So, in essence, every election, whether primary or general or RCV or binary-choice, contains in the U. S. an enormous number of abstentions. RCV doesn’t seem, so far in Minneapolis, to change that. In fact, our general election voters for municipal races decreased in 2009. This 35-candidate mayoral race, where the voter is required to research that huge bunch, will be interesting: if RCV cannot guarantee that someone wins an absolute majority of votes cast (one Big Promise), then cannot guarantee a large voter turnout at the general (second Big Promise), then cannot guarantee a meaningful pre-election discussion of issues and positions (third Big Promise, currently being unmet by the small subset of the 35 mayoral candidates that a ruling elite has decided are the only legitimate ones; we get only vague generalities and they all sound more or less the same)–why go to RCV? What’s the advantage?

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/05/2013 - 12:21 pm.


    To me, RCV wreaks of poli sci professorship, a complex system designed to achieve a highly artificial notion of fairness but doesn’t really correspond to the way people think. Personally, I don’t rank voters in my mind, and any system that insists I do distorts my voter intent. In practical terms, in Minneapolis, what RCV at the very least facilitates is a miasma of candidates who are neither running for or against anything or anyone.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 09/05/2013 - 02:55 pm.

      Missed all targets badly

      There’s nothing artificial about the notion of majority wins. Many of us, probably a large majority, grew up with it.

      If Mr. Foster means he doesn’t rank candidates — not voters — then there’s nothing to stop him from ranking just one candidate in any RCV election. He has the right to choose not to think about who he’d prefer and rank if his candidate is eliminated in the counting. RCV doesn’t insist on his ranking anybody if that’s what he wants to do.

      Mr. Foster should consider the result of the 1993 mayoral primary, where the two candidates generally considered the most conservative and most liberal went to the general election. Voters for the three or four top moderate candidates, who cast about 48% of the primary votes, may have been quite unhappy to be left with only the more extreme candidates.

      In practical terms, it’s the $20.00 filing fee that brought out so many candidates this year. Nothing about RCV — but everything about no incumbent plus little cost — is the cause. If Minneapolis had a serious filing fee, people would think seriously before filing.

  7. Submitted by David Cary on 09/07/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    “two candidates to face off and duke it out”

    Which often turns into months of negative campaigning and for some candidates, a mid-campaign, post-primary political make-over — an etcha-sketch campaign. These shenanighans are lucrative staples for many campaign consultants. Not surprising that many campaign consultants dislike RCV. It’s a bottom line issue for them.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/08/2013 - 10:54 pm.

      Bottom line issue

      I don’t know that there is anything else to say in response to your comment other than there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. Do you know who this really is a bottom line issue for? Fairvote. Once RCV gets in, Fairvote gets voter education grants from the municipalities that pass it, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. That is why people not from Minnesota like David Cary show up on our blogs and throw around unsupported claims.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/09/2013 - 08:59 am.

        On the other hand, the unquestioned opinion…

        …of the campaign consultant Rapp, that to get the “best kind of mandate to govern, the process has to end with a binary choice” is ABSOLUTELY UNSUPPORTED by anything – anything at all !! (note to Eric Black: you really can do better on this subject)

        The complete absence of foundation for Mr. Rapp’s opinion has nothing whatever to do with WHO said it, or WHERE they are from. It fails in any support completely on its own.

        So Mr. Hintz’s red herring of “not from Minnesota” has no merit either. What’s the difference where the person is from ? The question is whether the commenter’s point has any substance, not any attribute of the person.

        It’s true Mr. Cary does not provide any evidence – rather, he joins these facts:

        – Mr. Rapp is a political consultant and

        – he has a preference for mano e mano, “duke it out” election finals.

        And we all know from recent examples that these very kind of “duke it out” campaigns can behave just as Mr. Cary describes them. And they are a bonanza for political consultants.

        So he wonders aloud: could Mr. Rapp’s preference for these kinds of campaigns be linked to the revenue they generate for his industry ? It’s a reasonable question to ask.

        In fact, YOU YOURSELF raise the exact same issue with regard to Fairvote !! And I don’t think it’s any more nor less reasonable a question to ask in YOUR case than in Mr. Cary’s case.

        There is a difference, though, between Mr. Rapp on the one hand, and Fairvote on the other.

        Fairvote is an organization whose stated mission is to “remove the structural barriers to achieving a representative democracy that respects every vote and every voice in every election.”

        What is the mission of the individual, Mr. Rapp ? We don’t know, but is it some high public purpose ?

        If you knew of any campaign consultants who are enthusiastic supporters of RCV, it would be in the nature of valid and substantive opposition if you were to cite them as evidence to the contrary of Mr. Cary’s view.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/23/2013 - 11:57 am.

    Are there other approaches to consider?

    I think so. Take, for example, the blanket primary process used in California and Washington.

    A RCV primary followed by a general election involving the top two (or three) candidates seems to me to offer the best of both. In particular, it would eliminate the insanity Minneapolis voters face in the upcoming mayoral election.

    I’d also suggest that one of the primary reasons for low primary turnouts is that many voters (myself included) aren’t aligned with any of the major parties and, at least here in most wards of St. Paul, are fairly confident that the DFL endosed candidate will win the DFL primary and, ultimately, the general election, regardless of merit.

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