It isn’t so much that a bill has been filed in the Minnesota Legislature to ban ranked-choice voting that has its supporters so concerned. Having GOP lawmakers attempt to pre-empt issues passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul has been one of the themes of the last two sessions, with limited success.
But House File 3690 is different: It has bipartisan sponsorship, which might have led to an even louder alarm being sounded. “I’m writing with shocking and distressing news,” Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, which specifically advocates for ranked-choice voting, wrote to the organization’s supporters. “A few state legislators are attempting to trample all over local electoral control and cities’ choice to use Ranked Choice Voting.”
Massey urged recipients to contact the bill’s sponsors, listing contact information for Republican Reps. Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines, Tim O’Driscoll of Sartell and Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen as well as DFL Rep. Michael Nelson of Brooklyn Park.
A fifth sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, has asked that her name be removed from the bill.
A proposal due for rollout Wednesday in the state Senate — Senate File 3325 — also has bipartisan support, including chief sponsor, Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin. In the past, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has said he won’t consider any election-related bills that don’t have backing from members of both parties.
Currently only Minneapolis and St. Paul use ranked-choice voting for local elections, but the bill seeks to prohibit the method anywhere in the state, saying local governments “may not adopt or enforce in any manner a rule, resolution, or ordinance establishing ranked-choice voting as a method of voting.”
The list of local governments includes just about everything but park districts, and would cover charter and statutory cities, townships, counties and school districts.
How RCV works
In a ranked-choice-voting election, voters rank each of the candidates first, second and third, etc. In each round, the lowest-vote-getter drops out and their second choice votes are distributed to the surviving candidates. This is repeated until a candidate gets more than 50 percent or until a candidate has a plurality after others have been eliminated.
Supporters of RCV make numerous claims about its usefulness, including that it encourages more civil campaigns because candidates vie to be the second or third choice of voters who don’t support them initially. Saying bad things about other candidates could alienate their supporters and make it harder to win their second choice vote.
In cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, places so dominated by a single party that traditional primaries often determined who would win office, RCV also puts all candidates on the ballot during the larger-turnout November elections, when low-income residents and people of color tend to participate in larger numbers.
Critics of RCV think it contributes to public agreement but takes disagreements and political attacks underground, where it is harder to attribute them to individual candidates. Other criticisms are that it isn’t well understood and that it fails to cull the field of candidates in a way that lets voters concentrate on just two.
“It does not appear to have achieved the goals that were originally stated: simplicity, lower cost, less negativity, and more participation,” said Koran, one of the Senate bill sponsors. “But it seems to have inserted a lot of uncertainty about who is this even for? Does it really provide more choices?”
Taking away the will of the voters?
Minneapolis was the first city to use RCV during its 2009 election, after successfully defending lawsuits against the method and prevailing in the state Supreme Court. Since Minneapolis and St. Paul voters approved RCV, voters in Duluth rejected it. It has also been considered by city councils in St. Louis Park, Rochester and Red Wing, but has not yet been adopted in other cities.
Koran doesn’t live in a city with ranked-choice voting currently, but he fears some in his district are looking at implementing it. Born and raised in St. Paul, Koran said he has family members in the city who are frustrated by the system.
“Every vote should count, and every vote should be as simple as ‘I picked my top candidate,’ ” he said. “I think it changes the dynamics of, do you win by a second or third chance? It just doesn’t seem natural, and we have an established elections process that has worked well for more than 100 years.”
Nelson, a Brooklyn Park Democrat who’s supporting the bill, has already gotten about a dozen calls from people opposing his move to support it, but only a few from those in his own district. He does like that RCV eliminates primaries, which “does save money for the local municipalities,” he said. But he also thinks election systems should be the same across the state. “The state is the ultimate administrator of the election.”
Former Minneapolis Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said she was surprised by the bill, but noted that it isn’t the first attempt to pre-empt local government actions. Glidden, who sponsored Minneapolis’ original ranked-choice voting ordinance in 2006, said it does take pre-emption to a different level because both the Minneapolis measure in 2006 and the St. Paul measure in 2009 were charter amendments, meaning they were directly approved by voters.
By contrast, other local issues that have drawn fire from the Legislature — citywide minimum wages, paid leave, plastic bag bans — have passed with council votes only and weren’t approved at the ballot.
“I can understand that there are people in Minnesota and legislators too who don’t like this [RCV] voting method,” Glidden said. “The thing that was most surprising to me about the bill was that it took authority away from cities to be able to have that discussion, especially for cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul and other charter cities.”
“We had this on the ballot and voters went through the process of determining would they support it or not,” Glidden said. “This would be a bill that would, in essence, take away the will of the voters.”
But Koran pushed back on the idea that referendums always reflect the will of the voters. He noted a 2016 ballot initiative statewide that asked voters if they wanted to create an independent commission to decide legislative salaries. The way the question was worded, he said, made it seem like legislative salaries were out of control and a commission would put a check on them. In reality, legislators hadn’t had a pay raise in nearly two decades. Voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot initiative and the new council quickly voted to raise legislator pay.
“The referendums always sound good,” he said, “but often they are stacked against the average citizen.”