Call it the Incredible Shrinking Ranked Choice Voting bill.
It began this session of the Minnesota Legislature as a bill that would have triggered statewide ranked choice voting in time for the 2026 election and allowed all local governments to do so sooner.
As it stands with three weeks to go in the 2023 legislative session, all of that is gone. Only a 33-member task force remains in the bill, and ranked choice voting would be just one of many election issues that task force would study along with voter engagement, education and any other possible changes to election systems.
“We need to not presume that ranked choice voting is the objective of the task force,” said Senate Elections Committee Chair Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan. “It is to find out what the alternatives are, what is workable.”
Even that — and a $500,000 price tag — is not guaranteed to survive a House-Senate conference committee. The House bill does not have any new ranked choice voting provisions.
“It isn’t what we started with. It isn’t what we wanted. But it is progress,” said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota.
Sen. Kelly Morrison, the Deephaven DFLer who was prime sponsor in the Senate, said she was disappointed with the changes in the bill. “But I am excited about all the conversations the bill has sparked, and I think that will continue, which I think is a positive,” she said.
Ranked choice voting is a change in election law that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, as Melvin Carter did in the 2017 ranked choice voting election for mayor of St. Paul, the election is decided. If no candidate wins a first-ballot majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second-pick of their voters is assigned to the remaining candidates. The process continues until a candidate wins a majority or until no more second- or third-choice votes remain.
Because candidates must appeal to — or at least not alienate — the supporters of other candidates, they have an incentive to run more positive campaigns and think about coalitions and compromise, say supporters of ranked choice voting.
“Ranked choice voting is very popular,” Morrison said. “A lot of people are interested in it for the reasons that are often cited. People are worried about political polarization, the divisiveness and the threats to democracy that we are seeing. This is a way to encourage candidates to build broad coalitions and to get away from the spoiler effect.”
Opponents say it is confusing and can end with some voters seeing their ballot “exhausted” if the candidates they listed have been eliminated.
“Most people have no idea how ranked choice voting works or how the counting works,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for many of my six years here. It feels 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.”
The release during the session of a Humphrey School analysis of research on the main promises of ranked choice voting empowered opponents.
After a special election in Alaska that saw a Democrat and Native Alaskan prevail, the voting system has been politicized with Democrats seeing it as a path for victory and Republicans seeing it as unfair to the party that won more votes in the first round but ultimately lost. Only two states use such a system for statewide elections — Maine and Alaska.
But many municipalities have adopted it, including five in Minnesota. Advocates, led in Minnesota by FairVote, want to have ranked choice voting used for state and congressional offices. Massey said that the plan was to create a task force to work out the details of how to implement RCV statewide and that assigning a specific date would provide a deadline for a task force to act.
The technical issues are significant. Minnesota has a decentralized elections system run by counties, not the secretary of state. All make their own decisions about elections equipment and counting procedures. So while Minneapolis election officials count and then reassign votes in the city’s RCV elections, it wasn’t clear what local entity would do that in a statewide election or even a congressional or legislative races that covers multiple counties.
The other major issue is how a county would operate if its own elections in even years did not use ranked choice voting while the state elections did. Massey said the task force was to study and resolve those issues.
“Three years out seemed to be reasonable as a timeline,” Massey said. “But as we had further conversations, it became clear to them and then to us that more time was needed.” The latest bill language gives the task for until no later than March 1, 2025 to report back to the Legislature.
Also missing are provisions to broaden the cities and townships that can opt to use RCV. Now, only cities with home rule charters can include ranked choice voting in that charter initially or by amendment. The five — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park — are all home rule charter cities. Earlier versions of the bills would have let so-called statutory cities opt in to a ranked choice voting system for their local elections as long as those elections are held in odd years.
That, too, fell away in the multiple changes, as did $200,000 to help cities move to ranked choice voting.
The task force itself morphed as well, from consisting of advocates and technical experts to a broader membership and more duties. Currently, appointing authorities must “give preference to appointees who are new American, seniors, infrequent voters, Black, Indigenous, people of color, those with disabilities and people living in Greater Minnesota.
That was in response to concerns that ranked choice voting might make it even less likely for voters from those demographics groups to vote.
“There has to be as much discussion about this as possible from the perspective of democracy and not one potential (election) mechanism or another,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. “How do we alleviate the barriers that seem to be there for seniors, for English language learners, for communities of color.”
Supporters of ranked choice voting enlisted the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, who won a special election and a general election to replace the late-Rep. Don Young. Both were conducted using a form of ranked choice voting. In testimony, Peltola said RCV requires coalition building and that she needed to appeal not just to her own voters but to those who preferred others.
But Peltola might not have won had Alaska used the system envisioned for Minnesota. Alaska first conducts a primary that advances the top four finishers regardless of party. That produced one Democrat, two Republicans and a third-party candidate. In both elections, the two Republicans received a majority of the first-round votes. But because one of them was the polarizing former governor Sarah Palin, enough of the other GOP candidates’ supporters opted for Peltola with their second-choice votes.
While the specifics of any Minnesota system would be decided by the task force and a future Legislature, the backers of the system think the state would need partisan primaries for major parties. That would mean that only one Republican and one DFLer would be on the November ballot for a second ranked choice process.
A statewide RCV election would also be different in Minnesota than current local elections. Because the five cities do not designate candidates by party, all candidates appear on the November ballot. State partisan elections would need a primary.
“When you have big contests in a partisan race, when you have 12 Ds and 12 Rs running in a governors primary? That’s not a good model,” Massey said.
The secretary of state and city and county elections officials will have membership on the task force but they will be a minority.
“I support the task force as a necessary first step because we’re not currently ready to do ranked choice voting statewide,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon. “There would be some very big structural, architectural changes to how we do elections that would be necessary.
“We’d have to suss those out, we need to identify them and discuss them before the Legislature goes much further in that direction,” Simon said. He does support giving more cities the option, an idea he sponsored when he was a member of the House of Representatives.
“Let’s get more laboratories out there than just the five we have now,” he said.
But the DFL office holder said the easiest way to implement statewide RCV is to have state-run elections, something he doesn’t favor and something that he says there isn’t anyone calling for.
Deborah Erickson is the Crow Wing County administrative services director and is the current president of the Minnesota Association of County Officials. She, too, is concerned about how a decentralized election system would work with statewide RCV.
“It will be very difficult and very time consuming for us to work through this process to figure out exactly who is responding for the reallocation of votes for a legislative district that crosses four different counties,” Erickson said. “There’s not an easy solution.”
She also said what is left of the RCV bill is vague without a defined mission but a “huge bundle of things they need to look at.
“That’s a huge elephant to eat one bite at a time,” she said. “I would hope what is going to happen if this task force survives the legislative process is there will be some recognition of looking at process and procedure as well as big-picture items.” If it does look at ranked choice voting, it needs more direction about what it should look at and recommend, she said.