Minnesota showing the benefits of ranked choice voting

Published on January 20, 2023

Minnesota is once again leading the way on election innovation.

In 2009, Minneapolis became one of the largest cities to utilize ranked choice voting (RCV) rules for municipal elections. St. Paul followed suit for mayoral and City Council elections beginning in 2011. Considering the overwhelmingly positive effects of the rule change, the Twin Cities — with the recent additions of St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Bloomington — are likely to rely on RCV for the foreseeable future.

RCV is an electoral system in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If there is no majority winner after the first-choice votes are tallied, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Upon elimination, the second-choices of the voters who preferred that candidate are counted. This tabulation process repeats until a candidate reaches 50% of the vote.

Although RCV is rapidly expanding, just a handful of cities in the Midwest have made the change, and Alaska and Maine are the only statewide examples.

Yet, for the Twin Cities, the benefit of RCV is apparent: Voter turnout has increased; candidates have switched to more positive campaigns (lest they alienate voters who might want to make them their second choice); and elected officials are more representative of their constituency. If RCV was adopted nationwide for state and federal elections — including presidential contests — the chances are that the results would reflect the positive changes seen in the Twin Cities.

In Minneapolis, voter turnout for municipal elections has increased substantially since the adoption of RCV. In the 2021 municipal election, turnout reached 54%, an increase of nearly 24 percentage points since 2005. On average, the introduction of RCV in the Twin Cities is estimated to be directly responsible for a 9.6-percentage-point increase in turnout for mayoral elections, and the increase is more pronounced for precincts with high poverty rates.

Along with increased turnout, RCV encourages candidates to engage in positive campaign strategies and cooperate with their opponents in order to receive second-choice votes. With voters particularly critical of the divisiveness and cynicism currently driving campaigns, RCV begins to combat the aura of pessimism that dissuades voters from actively following and participating in politics. In the Twin Cities, the civility of debates has increased, and 90% of voters say that candidates spend no or very little time criticizing each other. This transformation in tone is meaningful because positive candidate messaging further stimulates turnout.

Finally, RCV has contributed to a dramatic shift in the diversity of the Minneapolis City Council. Of the current members, 54% are women and 62% are people of color. Nationally, as of April 2020, 46% of mayoral positions and 49% of city council seats decided by RCV are held by women. In non-RCV jurisdictions, women comprise only 23% of mayors.

The non-transferable voting system that persists in the vast majority of the United States is long overdue for a change. It is a system that increases polarization, cements a two-party structure, suppresses turnout, and contributes to the voting paradox through wasted votes. RCV offers a solution to these issues by ensuring that third-party candidates can run without being spoilers, while the system simultaneously introduces new benefits in the form of turnout, positive campaigning, and representation.

Those in opposition to RCV have argued that the system is unnecessarily complex, but Minneapolis has shown otherwise, with 92% of voters in the 2017 election indicating that the ballot was simple to understand and fill-out. Of the constituents in Minnesota that vote through RCV, the majority would like to see the system expanded to state elections. Furthermore, any deployment of resources and education that is necessary to make a successful change is worth the effort: Citizens in RCV jurisdictions are more likely to have their voices heard and more likely to make a difference in election outcomes. While more studies of RCV are needed, all signs point towards practical, positive effects.

The adoption of RCV can be as simple as a local or state ballot initiative or the passage of a bill by the state Legislature. For Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips,  Ilhan Omar, as well as 128 members of the state Legislature have explicitly indicated their support for RCV in primary and general elections for state and federal offices.

On a national level, a congressional bill that proposed establishing the use of RCV in elections for Senate and House offices stalled in 2019. However, Nevada is the most recent example of a successful ballot initiative, voting in November to switch to RCV. Many voting rights organizations — like FairVote — have created legislative changes nationwide. Considering that 60% of Americans favor RCV, the adoption is likely to increase exponentially in the near future.

At a time when elections are as contentious as ever, RCV offers an opportunity to switch to a system that allows citizens to have their voices best heard, and the Twin Cities can attest to the expansive benefits.

Zach Spindler-Krage

Originally published in the Minnesota Reformer
Published on January 19, 2023

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