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The lazy person’s guide to ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis and St. Paul

It isn’t nuclear physics, people. Here are the basics to consider before you cast your ballot in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

If you only care about one candidate, vote only for that candidate. You don’t have to give second or third choices.
MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

Let’s be honest here. You don’t understand ranked-choice voting. You may think you do. Sure, you may understand the word “ranked” and the word “choice” and the word “voting.” You may have even tried explaining it at a party once, although chances are you sounded like you were on “Drunk History.” But come on, you don’t really get it.       

The truth is hardly anyone does. Maybe the folks on “Almanac.” The rest of us? You’d have better chances finding people who know how a carburetor works than ranked-choice voting.

The good news is no one’s asking you to explain it. You just need to know how to do it — or at least enough to not panic on Tuesday and write in Don Fraser. Let us help. Here are the basic things to consider:      

It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Or if you live in St. Paul: 1-2-3-4-5-6
Let’s just get this out of the way. Ranked-choice voting is not as easy as the former system. You remember the old one? Where you would vote for one candidate and hope that one candidate wins? Good times.  

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But take heart: Ranked-choice voting isn’t nuclear physics. In a single-seat race, like the one for mayor, every voter gets one vote, though voters also have the power to rank multiple candidates. In Minneapolis, you get to rank three. In St. Paul, you get to rank six.

Your vote counts for your highest-ranked candidate, and your second choice only counts if your first choice is defeated. (Stay with us here.) If no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, a reallocation begins.

The candidate who receives the fewest first choice votes will be eliminated. Votes from the eliminated candidate will then be reallocated to the remaining candidates based on the voter’s next highest choice. (You’re looking light-headed — to spare you a full-on migraine, we won’t get into the whole “batch elimination” thing.)

The counting and reallocation continue until one candidate receives a majority of votes. If only two candidates remain and neither has received a majority of votes, the candidate with the most votes wins. (MPR put together a good video explainer using Post-it Notes a few years ago.)

Wait, how did we even get here?
Blame Ralph Nader. His perceived role as spoiler in the 2000 election motivated many municipalities to try ranked-choice voting, including Minneapolis in 2009 and St. Paul in 2011.

“The idea is to let people choose a third-party candidate without feeling like they’re throwing away their vote,” says David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “It was also designed to encourage more candidates to run in the general election, since it does away with a primary. In that regard, it’s succeeded. This year there are 16 people running in the general in Minneapolis and 10 in St. Paul.”

Is this more work?
It is more work. This can be viewed as an empowering thing. This can also be viewed as a pain-in-the-butt thing. Who has time to read up on a bunch of mayoral candidates when you still have leaves in your yard?

Corey Cook, the dean of Boise State University’s School of Public Service, who researches ranked-choice voting, says RCV tends to work best in races where there are a few candidates whom voters have an easy time distinguishing from one another, like a presidential election where voters have a lot of information and the candidates have party affiliations.

That’s not the case here, obviously, and the workload issue is a common criticism, according to former Minneapolis City Council Member Scott Benson. “I hear that a lot, that there are too many people for people to keep track of,” he says. “But I think it’s worth it. I see people having the opportunity to get educated on a host of candidates. And ranked choice has introduced new ways for citizens to vote. Some say they are going to vote their conscience and then go with an alternative who has a good chance to prevail. Others say they are going to vote for their top two and have a third as a firewall. It has introduced all these new strategies.”

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Think of it like ordering off the menu (sorta)
The challenge is deciding which strategy is right for you. That takes a little preparation. But when you get into the booth, it’s like ordering off the menu. “Imagine going into a restaurant and asking about the specials,” explains Schultz. “The waiter says chicken, beef, and fish. You say they all sound good but your first choice is beef. The waiter goes and checks and says the beef is out. You ask for chicken. They bring you the chicken. That’s ranked-choice voting.”

If you like candidates who are likely to win (beef or chicken, say), you’re probably in good shape to have your vote help decide who the next mayor or council member will be.  

But not everybody likes frontrunners. Some people want the fish, or maybe even the vegetarian option. That’s fine. But if that’s your choice, you should know that if you fill out your whole three or six-slot ballot with long-shot candidates, they could all be eliminated; you won’t actually end up choosing between the two finalists to be the next mayor.

“Voters might prefer more fringe or less likely to win candidates, but if they’re not ultimately casting between the top two, their vote will not continue on to accrue to the winning candidates,” Cook said.

In a system where you only get three choices (but still want your vote to count), a la Minneapolis, Cook recommends that voters cast their sincere preferences at least for your first two votes. But then, “if you have information on who [you think] the leading candidates are, try to differentiate between the leading candidates with your third vote,” Cook said.

In other words: Go ahead, order the vegetarian option first. And the fish second. But if you think the final vote is going to come down to chicken vs. beef and you really hate chicken, you want to be sure to pick beef for your third choice (instead of a protest vote for, you know, the pasta).  

What if you only like one candidate?
If you only care about one candidate, vote only for that candidate. You don’t have to give second or third choices.

Persuading voters to do this isn’t a bad strategy — for a candidate — since voters might end up changing teams and ranking someone else higher if they do their homework on other candidates.

But it is a bad strategy for you as a voter. Indeed, ranked-choice voting only works to your benefit if you do give secondary choices. That’s because if you vote for one candidate and that person doesn’t survive the first-round counting, your vote no longer counts. And it seems likely that second choices will matter in both Minneapolis and St. Paul this year.

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“It seems highly plausible that no one will have a clear majority in the first round in either mayoral race,” Schultz says. “This is the year where ranked-choice voting could make a big difference.”

Enjoy it while it lasts
As long as it’s here, you may as well be smart about it, because here’s a news flash: Ranked-choice voting isn’t unanimously beloved. Schultz views it as innocuous at best. Walter Mondale has called it confusing and complex in op-eds. And Shawn Towle, executive director of St. Paul Votes Smarter and founder of the blog, friggin’ hates it.

“I think it’s terrible,” he says. “Second-choice selection is just a default primary to me. What’s the point? To make the process harder to understand? The good news is I think it could all go away. There are Republican legislators who may push to pre-empt local autonomy and do away with it.”

But it’s here now. So if you’re reading this and feeling unprepared for Tuesday, considers these suggestions. Permission to rank them in any order you want:

  • Remember to vote. Let’s not overlook that. Tuesday.

  • Do a little homework. You don’t have to get Nate Silver on the phone. Just review some candidate websites. They’re impressively (and sometimes oddly) comprehensive these days. (To wit: You can find out in what place Jacob Frey finished in the 2007 Pan Am Games marathon: fourth!)

  • Rank if you know something about more than one candidate. It’s probably better than not ranking. But don’t just rank to rank. It’s tempting. Everyone wants to look smart, even to yourself. It happens inside voting booths all the time. People vote in down-ballot races even though they have no idea who these people are. Try not to do that. White space isn’t illegal.

  • Think. But don’t overthink. RCV can involve a little strategy, but it’s not 12-dimensional chess. You’re not going to outsmart the system by voting for a candidate you don’t like as a first choice to improve the chances down the line in a run-off for a candidate you do like. When in doubt, vote for people you like until you run out of people you like.

Do all that and Nov. 7 will go just fine for you. With any luck one of your choices will end up winning in the 34th round and you can spend the next year telling your friends you knew it all along.