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Has ranked-choice voting lived up to its promise in the Twin Cities?

RCV isn’t going anywhere. Is that a good thing? 

There is one area where both advocates and opponents of RCV agree: that municipal elections struggle to attract voters.
REUTERS/John Gress

If there’s any slice of St. Paul that would have harbored opposition to ranked-choice voting, it would be the DFL’s city convention.

After all, some of the most vocal opponents of the decision to make the city the second in Minnesota to adopt RCV were party activists. And some continue to blame the advent of RCV for a decline in the importance of the party’s imprimatur in a place where candidates pledge to — and often do — drop out if another candidate is endorsed.

So it wasn’t unexpected that of the 55 resolutions presented to the 540 credentialed delegates at the city party’s convention last June, one proposed to move city elections back to the old way of doing things: a primary/general election system.

When put to a vote in an online tally, however, the resolution to scuttle RCV received just 22 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a resolution affirming support for the system was adopted with nearly 67 percent. All of which came a week after one of the leading opponents of RCV resigned from the St. Paul Charter Commission when it became clear that his attempt to force a revote on the issue this fall wouldn’t succeed.

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After barely a decade of experience with what is still a radical departure from the norm, ranked-choice voting has secured a foothold in the region. Yet even as this year’s wide-open mayor’s election in St. Paul provides the second real test of the system, a bigger question remains: Has RCV fulfilled its promise?

Expanding the electorate — or just creating confusion? 

While both supporters and opponents of RCV cite statistics and anecdotes backing their positions, the politics of RCV are reflective of so many other issues today. Few are swayed by the other side’s statistics or arguments. And yet there is one area where both advocates and opponents of RCV agree: that municipal elections struggle to attract voters.

In fact, in cities dominated by a single party, as both Minneapolis and St. Paul are, primary elections often determine the winners of elections, meaning that just a tiny slice of the population effectively controls who becomes mayor. Because RCV does away with the primary, its advocates argue, it creates a more democratic system, since — if nothing else — it taps into the larger pool of voters in the November general election.

“This is especially key for communities of color who are even more underrepresented in primaries than in general elections than the population at large,” Ellen Brown, an RCV advocate who chaired the St. Paul Better Ballot campaign committee in 2009, wrote to the St. Paul charter commission. (Unrelated to RCV, both cities are considering moving municipal elections to even years as a means of boosting turnout among lower-income and people of color.)

RCV backers say the system also leads to less negative campaigns and creates more choices, and ensures that winners have broad support. Another argument by advocates: that voters seem to like it. An Edison Research exit poll among St. Paul Ward 2 voters in 2015 showed that 70 percent wanted the method in future elections and 83 percent reported that they found it simple to use. Of those 690 voters polled, 82 percent reported being “very” or “somewhat” familiar with the method before arriving at the polls.

Edison’s 2013 citywide exit poll in Minneapolis of 2,453 voters showed similar results, with 68 percent wanting it used in future elections and 61 percent saying they would like it used for state elections as well. Of voters with college educations, 88 percent found the method simple to use. Of those without college degrees, 81 percent said it was simple to use.

Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic at a fundraiser for Duluth’s ranked choice voting measure in 2015.

But not everyone is so enamored of RCV. Chuck Repke, whose opposition to RCV is well-known and long lasting, argues that it has never lived up to what its backers promised.  “What concerns me about ranked-choice voting is that not everybody uses it, either they don’t understand it or are confused by it,” he said.

Repke, the guy who tried to force a revote on RCV while a member of the St. Paul Charter Commission, said he thinks a primary/general election format — as is being used in Seattle for an open mayor’s seat — allows voters to focus on candidates earlier and more intensely. “In Seattle … voters will be able to compare and contrast the two candidates. In St. Paul, we haven’t had a primary, and if you asked 90 percent of the registered voters ‘Who is running?’ they’d be hard pressed to name any of them. It’s that difficult to get visibility.”

Repke also considers the system elitist, one that appeals to wealthy, well-educated voters who are intensely interested in local government.

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“When you’re trying to convince someone at the door to get up off their tush and go vote when they’re not interested and now you have to tell them to vote for three people for mayor,” Repke said. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds to a real human being?”

The first test

Minneapolis held Minnesota’s first real test of RCV in 2013, with an open mayor’s race that included 35 registered candidates. It took 33 rounds of counting 78,000 ballots before Betsy Hodges, who led from round one, was declared the winner. By then, enough ballots had been exhausted that Hodges was elected with just a plurality: 48.95 percent.

Finishing second was former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, considered the favorite throughout the campaign after getting closest to a DFL endorsement and leading in several opinion polls. He had endorsements from the big unions, some of the biggest DFL politicians, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, and raised the most money.

Andrew did well in the Somali-American community, but Hodges won where politicians often win Minneapolis elections — in the whiter and wealthier wards in the southern part of the city where she had been a City Council member.

Andrew said he doesn’t blame RCV for his defeat, instead saying he failed to translate his leads in polls to actual voter turnout. But he does say that the campaign changed his mind about RCV. “I was promised that it would increase voter turnout; I was promised that it would encourage communities of color and diverse communities to get out there and vote; I was promised that it would be a more-civil-discourse campaign; I was promised that it would be more open,” he said. “In point of fact, it didn’t do any of those things.”

Andrew said incumbents are frequently targeted by all the challengers in order to bring the leader’s vote totals down. And since he was perceived to be the front-running candidate, he filled the role of incumbent vacated when Mayor R.T. Rybak opted out of seeking a fourth term. Attacks came, he said, but not from the other candidates. Instead, negative campaigning came from surrogates and via email and on social media rather than in public forums.

“It’s very civil at the surface, but underground it’s very nasty,” Andrew said of his RCV campaign. “They do e-mail campaigns and Twitter campaigns that are actually nastier and more distorted than you would get just having a candidates’ debate.”

Karl Landskroener, an organizer for Fair Vote Minnesota
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Karl Landskroener, an organizer for Fair Vote Minnesota, signs up a supporter before a recent Minneapolis campaign forum.

Under RCV, those public forums tended to become “me-too” affairs, since candidates had a motive not to alienate any batch of voters, said Andrew. “The frontrunner can’t respond because the frontrunner is working really hard not only to keep their first-place votes but to get enough second and third-place votes from the lesser candidates to push them over.”

That election also exposed one of the quirks of RCV, thanks to a campaign strategy employed in Ward 6, where Somali immigrants make up a large proportion of votes. Voters were urged to vote for Andrew and Somali-American city council candidate Abdi Warsame — and no one else. Only 45 percent of the ballots from the ward had second or third choices, whereas the citywide average was 80 percent.

Were those voters disenfranchised? That is, did they give up their full role in the election? Andrew, who said he wasn’t behind the strategy, said that because he and Warsame carried that ward, most of the votes were still involved until the last vote count, since Warsame won his seat and Andrew finished second in the mayor’s race.

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Repke agrees, noting that if a voter fully expects their favored candidate to finish in the top two, there is no reason to cast second or third choice votes. “If you voted for (third-place finisher) Don Samuels three times, your vote ended up in the trash,” Repke said. “But you’re safe if you know your candidate is in the top two.”

At the same time, giving a first choice to a symbolic but likely doomed candidate doesn’t hurt — as long as one of the front runners is listed second or third.

History making?

The St. Paul mayor’s election features dynamics that could put RCV to the test. Because none of the four DFL candidates — current council member Dai Thao, former council members Melvin Carter III and Pat Harris, and a former school board member Tom Goldstein — reached the 60 percent threshold to secure the party’s endorsement, they have been free to run for the technically non-partisan office without party disapproval.

The four DFLers have been joined by seven other candidates, including Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson, Libertarian Chris Holbrook, independent Tim Holden and a homeless shelter resident, Barnabas Joshua Yshua, who says he was moved to run by God.

Harris is as close as any to the traditional St. Paul mayors of the past: Catholic, Irish, from a family that has lived in the city for generations. And whether he likes it or not, he is being positioned as the more traditional of the main five candidates. Opposing him are candidates who, if successful, would represent the city’s first Hmong-American (Thao), African-American (Carter), or female (Dickinson) mayor.

Complicating things even further was the fact that, in the midst of the DFL endorsing process, allegations became public that Thao had solicited a campaign contribution from lobbyists representing a packaging company concerned about a potential ban on polystyrene, to-go boxes. The lobbyist said she received an email from Thao’s campaign offering to rethink the issue and asking again for a contribution. Thao — who was not charged with a crime after the matter was investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — fired the campaign worker and said he was unaware of the request.

Afterward, Thao lashed out at opponents and alleged that he is the victim of dirty tricks perpetrated by campaign opponents.

Thao’s rivals don’t mention the unpleasantries and there was enough media coverage they didn’t have to. But silence made sense, both out of fealty to Minnesota Nice and because of the matter’s RCV implications. None wanted to alienate Thao’s supporters, who could potentially be picking one of them second or third on their ballots.

Where all candidates are above average

When Rebecca Noecker was running for an open seat on the St. Paul City Council in 2015, she had to learn something that’s difficult for some Minnesotans: She had to learn to talk about herself. The fact that it was an RCV election made it slightly easier, though. “It’s nice to be able to say, ‘There are many of us who are great and you can rank more than one of us. It’s not an either-or proposition,” she said.

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Noecker agrees that the campaign was more convivial than it would have been in a primary/general election system, and says she remained on friendly terms with her opponents. She said she believed there would be consequences if she was perceived by voters as being negative.

As with the 2013 Minneapolis mayor’s race, however, her race wasn’t free from negative campaigning — it just came from third parties. “The problem is, outside independent groups don’t have to hold to those rules and don’t have the same incentives,” she said. “The race got much uglier than I would have liked.”

Because business organizations that supported her were opposed to mandatory parental leave, for example, the St. Paul Labor Federation sent a mailer accusing her of not being on the side of “new parents”: “Rebecca Noecker: Not on our side. Not even close. Vote No on Rebecca Noecker.” On the other side, the St. Paul Police Federation, the union representing the city’s rank and file police officers, sent attacks on her chief opponent, Darren Tobolt.

Noecker was surprised by one aspect of RCV — something she discovered on the streets, not in any guidebooks. Because voters have second and third choices, they were fair game even when she knew they had committed to one of her opponents. “I door knocked a number of people who had signs up for my opponent,” just to see if would they consider making her their second choice, she said. “The conversation didn’t have to stop because they had already pledged to someone else.”