Harvard Ash Center: Ranked Choice Voting Gains Momentum

Published on September 21, 2020

Cecily Hines and Miles Rapoport in Medium / Harvard Ash Center:

Nationwide, there is increasing discussion about the advantages of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Particularly in this historic period of polarization and discord, RCV is gaining momentum because it offers more choices on the political spectrum, it encourages candidates to appeal to a broader base of voters, discouraging extreme positions and language, and most importantly guarantees a winner who has received a majority of votes. In Maine and in cities across Minnesota, RCV has expanded dramatically. And on November 3, voters in Massachusetts will decide whether the Bay State should adopt RCV as well.

For those not familiar, RCV (also known as “instant run-off voting”) lets the voter rank candidates in order of personal preference. Then, when the tallying occurs, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is dropped and the votes that the losing candidate received are reallocated to the voters’ second choice. This process continues until one candidate receives over 50% of the vote, effectively a runoff without any additional voting required.

While Maine has gained attention as the first state to implement RCV statewide, Minnesota has persistently expanded the use of RCV in city after city. Fair Vote of Minnesota, headed by Jeanne Massey, has been leading the effort to implement RCV in Minnesota since the early 2000s. Starting with Minneapolis (adopted in 2006 and implemented in 2009), followed by St. Paul (adopted in 2009 and implemented in 2011) and then St. Louis Park (adopted in 2017 and implemented in 2019), the citizens of these cities have enjoyed the benefits of this process, while leading the way for other cities to follow. This November, two more cities — Bloomington and Minnetonka (City Council voted unanimously on August 10) — will have RCV on the ballot.

The movement is also growing across the state. Fair Vote’s 2020 Survey, sent to all Minnesota state legislative candidates, shows strong and growing support for RCV. Fair Vote is working to support those candidates who endorse ranked choice voting. If they are successful, there is a good chance of passing a law in the 2021 legislative session to institute RCV statewide.

In addition, RCV is being implemented in various other cities, already in San Francisco, and New York starting in 2021. RCV will be on the ballot for state and federal elections in Massachusetts, Alaska, and North Dakota. If these pass, their success will create increased momentum in Minnesota and for other cities and states around the country.

Ranked Choice Voting is one of the top recommendations in the recent report, “Our Common Purpose”, published by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, a co-chair of the Commission and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, stated at a recent (August 27) event in Minnesota that ranked choice voting “is the single most important thing we can do” to address racial inequities in our democracy. The core problem, she explained, is a lack of responsiveness in our political institutions. Ranked choice voting brings new and diverse voices into the political process and empowers people who previously have felt left behind. At that same event, Sondra Samuels, President and CEO of Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone, said that when RCV was established in Minneapolis in the 2009 elections, the increase in turnout from diverse communities, along with the hopefulness she saw in many voters, was apparent.

“…people are tired of the polarized politics of our two-party only system; they want a consensus way to vote that gives them more choices and encourages candidates to reach out to a broader base and win majority support; ranked choice voting does both”

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz supports RCV, as do Minnesota’s two U.S. senators. Walz has pledged to sign the legislation into law when it passes the state legislature. Numerous other champions are coming forward in both the public and private sectors, and that list is growing daily.

While this progress is being made in Minnesota, activists in Massachusetts have been hard at work to enact RCV in the Bay State. Maine’s enactment of RCV statewide was a motivator, and in the fall of 2019 a growing grassroots movement got their first round of signatures for a ballot initiative, followed by a second round of signatures in the spring of 2020. As a result, RCV for all statewide and Congressional races will on the ballot in Massachusetts in November as Question 2. One example of the problems that RCV can solve is the recent primary in Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District. The winning candidate received only 22% of the vote — hardly a ringing voter endorsement. Even the winner, Jake Auchincloss, has stated that it would be far better to have a system where the winning candidate gets over 50% of the final vote tally, as would be the case with ranked choice voting.

George Pillsbury, founder of Nonprofit VOTE and a long-time advocate for ranked choice voting, commented that “people are tired of the polarized politics of our two-party only system; they want a consensus way to vote that gives them more choices and encourages candidates to reach out to a broader base and win majority support; ranked choice voting does both.” Because of these attitudes, Pillsbury says that virtually all voter engagement groups, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and Mass VOTE, as well as environmental organizations, are supporters of RCV. Six of the state’s nine congressional representatives support the initiative, as do its two U.S. Senators.

And who is the opposition to RCV? It seems they are not too visible or organized, but those who do speak out argue that RCV is too complicated for the average voter, that the ballot will be confusing. While the system as a whole takes some initial education when first enacted, voters have not had a problem with the ballots, as is shown by 1) the ease of understanding by those voters in Minnesota who have been using RCV in some municipal elections for several cycles, and 2) the strong support the system has generated.

November’s ballot initiatives will be a test of RCV’s growing national momentum. Though it won’t be the top headline amid the intense national drama, it is a policy to improve our democracy that may gain even greater traction. Stay tuned to see what November brings…..

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