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Senate advances bill that could move Minnesota toward ranked choice voting in state, federal elections

The bill would broaden the number of local governments that could adopt the system and then create a task force with the aim of crafting a plan to elect partisan state and federal officials via ranked choice voting.

Jeanne Massey, executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota, and state Sen. Kelly Morrison shown speaking in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
Jeanne Massey, executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota, and state Sen. Kelly Morrison shown speaking in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Voters in some of Minnesota’s largest cities are familiar with ranked choice voting elections, the system that since 2009 has allowed voters to rank candidates for nonpartisan local offices. Now, a bill advanced through a state Senate committee takes the first steps toward using that election system for partisan federal and state offices as well.

Senate File 2270 was approved last week by the Senate Elections Committee on a party line vote. That kept the issue alive past a self-imposed legislative deadline for bills to pass out of committee. If passed into law and signed by Gov. Tim Walz, the bill would first broaden the number of local governments that could adopt the system and then create a 26-member task force with the aim of crafting a plan to elect members of Congress, governors and legislators later in the decade.

While the measure has support among DFLers, it is opposed by Republicans and has not been at the top of DFL election law changes. It is set for a hearing Friday before the House Elections Committee and among the 35 sponsors in the House are Speaker Melissa Hortman.

Ranked choice voting is sometimes called instant runoff voting because in most cases there is no primary election to winnow down the field. Instead, all candidates are on the general election ballot only. Sponsors, however, have said the intent is to use both an RCV primary election and an RCV general election for state and federal partisan offices. 

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A new version, adopted at the request of top sponsor, Sen. Kelly Morrison of Deephaven, would also change the timing of the move to RCV. Initially the bill called for RCV to be used for the 2026 election. Now, the task force would come up with details about holding partisan races using RCV, as well as a timeline for when they would start. The task force recommendations, due no later than January of 2027, would need to be adopted, amended or rejected by a future Legislature before they could be implemented.

Currently, five cities elect local offices using the system. They are Minneapolis, St, Paul, St. Louis Park, Bloomington and Minnetonka. Two states, Maine and Alaska, use RCV for state and federal offices.

Morrison told the committee that “toxic politics and division are damaging our democracy” and that her bill – what she calls the Protect and Advance Democracy Act – is a remedy for that.

“Ranked choice voting is one of the best steps we can take to reduce our political divisions and strengthen our democracy,” she said. “Candidates must appeal to their opponents’ supporters for second and third choice votes. They do that by running positive campaigns that focus on policy solutions rather than personal attacks.”

Under the system, all candidates appear on a single ballot and voters rank them with first choice, second choice, third choice or more. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is dropped and the second-choices on those ballots is assigned to the surviving candidates. The process is repeated until someone has a majority or until there are no remaining ballots that haven’t been assigned or are “exhausted,” meaning they no longer contain a vote for a surviving candidate.

In the case of partisan elections like for Congress or governor, there might be a RCV primary that would declare one party candidate the nominee. Major party nominees would join third party and independent candidates in the November election for another RCV process. An early version of the bill anticipated such a two-election adaptation. It was removed in the amendment but would likely be considered by the task force.

Republicans on the committee objected to both the content of the bill and the haste with which it was brought before the committee for a hearing and a vote.

“All I’ve heard all session is that we have the best, cleanest, fairest, most-trustworthy election system in the entire country, yet this is another bill that will change every single aspect of a system you said was the greatest in the country,” said Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch.

Local Elections

Currently, only charter cities have the authority to switch to RCV. The bill before the Legislature would allow any city, county, school district or other local government to adopt it for their elections. Rochester City Council President Brooke Carlson told the elections committee that her city adopted a resolution supporting ranked choice voting in local elections but are not legally empowered to do so. The bill would change that.

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“This bill would provide the potential to have a robust local conversation on this issue to see if this is right for Rochester,” Carlson said.

St. Paul City Council Member Nelsie Yang told the committee that she thinks RCV levels the political playing field for immigrant communities and people of color.

“No one is at a disadvantage from the start with ranked choice voting … which is why I’m such a strong supporter of it,” Yang said.

Expanding its use for partisan elections, said Simon Barnicle, an election attorney from Eagan, would help voters vote their true feelings about candidates rather than have to think tactically. For example, he cited Democrats in 2020 who might have preferred someone like Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg for president but instead voted for Joe Biden as a way to keep Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination.

“In Minnesota … for years, partisan operatives have cynically promoted extreme, third-party candidates in hopes that they will siphon votes away from the DFL,” Barnicle said. “This bill would end that practice by preventing third-party candidates from acting as spoilers.”

Bill supporters, from left: Mark Bohnhorst, Simon Barnicle and St. Paul City Council Member Nelsie Yang.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Bill supporters, from left: Mark Bohnhorst, Simon Barnicle and St. Paul City Council Member Nelsie Yang.
But RCV has become a partisan issue in Minnesota and nationally with Democrats making up the majority of supporters and Republicans mostly opposed. Neither bill in the state House and Senate has a GOP co-sponsor.

Both supporters and opponents cite the 2022 U.S. House race in Alaska as evidence for their positions. There, Democrat Mary Peltola won first a special election for an unexpired term and then a full term over Republican Sarah Palin because she secured more votes from a second Republican in the race, Nick Begich.

Had Begich been eliminated in a traditional primary — or even in the type of RCV primary Morrison envisions — and only Peltola and Palin faced off in the final election, Palin likely would have prevailed. Peltola had been scheduled to testify before the Senate elections committee but canceled due to her schedule in Washington, D.C., Morrison said. But she is set to testify before the House committee Friday and be the main attraction at a rally later that day. Also elected from Alaska was incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Given the partisan divide over a bill backers say would reduce toxicity, there would likely need to be a DFL trifecta to pass the enabling legislation after the task force reports in 2027. By then, there will have been two state House elections, one state Senate election and an election for governor.

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Sen. Andrew Matthews, R-Princeton, said big changes like this should have bipartisan support, otherwise election laws could be changed with each new partisan majority, leading to instability.

“Most people have no idea how ranked choice voting works or how the counting works,” Matthews said. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for many of my six years here. It feel like you dump all the results into a blender, you’re pushing on high, you power chop it up, and someone pours it out and announces who the winner is days, if not a week or more, after the election.”

He said faster results are key to transparency and confidence and Minnesota usually can declare winners on election night or at least the next day. Koran said the toxicity and threats of violence in elections and around policy making have happened in the cities that use ranked choice voting.

“It seems like that temperature has been raised dramatically because of this type of system and the people who have been elected,” Koran said.

County elections officials have expressed concerns about the complexity and cost of conducting both a regular election for county offices and an RCV election for state and federal offices on the same ballot and at the same election. While counties could adopt RCV for their own even-year elections, they would have the option to keep the current primary/general election system.

Deborah Erickson, Crow Wing County administrative services director and president of the Minnesota Association of County Officers, wrote to ask that local officials be well represented on any task force. She also asked that the task force consider “the administrative complexity, voter education needs and security and integrity of such elections.”

Many legislative and congressional districts cross county lines, adding to the complexity. Alaska and Maine have statewide vote counting, not the county based system that Minnesota uses.

Max Hailperin, a retired computer science professor who has been advising Citizens for Election Integrity on the technical details of the bill, said the biggest change in the recent draft was changing the date for implementation. Before, the first statewide RCV election would have been held in 2026 whether the state was ready or not. He said the bill now gives local governments that use the system more flexibility in details such as ballot layout and the use of software to process the vote count.

As for MACO’s concerns about a RCV and non-RCV ballot at the same election, Hailperin said “no one has a clue what that would look like.”

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The committee received numerous other letters about the bill, most in support. The campaign is organized by Fair Vote Minnesota that has been working for more than a decade to see it implemented at the local and state government levels.

One of the board members of Fair Vote is Michael Osterholm, who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He wrote: “While I have been fortunate to experience significant success in my life, I view RCV as the legacy of my lifetime and a way to bring about a better world for my kids, my grandkids and their future. RCV is a simple change to the ballot but one that holds the promise of bringing about a more inclusive, representative and responsive democracy for all.”

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, DFL-2nd District, wrote that she is elected from one of the few remaining swing districts in the U.S. and that her voters tend to be less partisan.

“Implementing Ranked Choice Voting in Minnesota would help ensure candidates are more concerned about fighting for the support of constituents rather than tearing each other down,” wrote Craig.