From states like Alaska and Maine to municipalities like Minneapolis, St. Paul and New York City, an increasing number of Americans are casting their votes on ranked choice ballots.
With more jurisdictions adopting the alternative electoral system, discussions of ranked choice voting have reached the Minnesota Legislature and the city of St. Peter.
Maureen Reed, Board Chair of FairVote Minnesota, a ranked choice voting advocacy group, gave a presentation to the St. Peter City Council on Jan. 20, discussing the pros and cons of adopting the alternative voting system.
Ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, allows voters to rank their candidates by preference i.e. first choice, second choice, third choice etc. If no candidate has earned more than 50% of the votes after the first round of voting, the candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated. Voters who preferred the losing candidate first then have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate. The process of eliminating the lowest vote-getters redistributing ballots to the next preferred candidate continues until a single candidate has won a majority of votes.
If a voter only picks one candidate, or has all their preferred candidates eliminated, their vote is not transferred to any of the remaining candidates.
Pros and cons
One of the primary advantages of ranked choice voting, Reed said, is that it ensures the winning candidate will have a majority when there are three or more choices on the ballot.
In Minnesota’s current electoral system, candidates can win with a plurality of the vote. This has occurred four consecutive times in Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections, starting with Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura winning with 37% of the vote in 1998, Republican Tim Pawlenty winning with 44.4% of the vote in 2002 and 46.7% in 2006 in three-way splits with the DFL and Independence Parties, and Democrat Mark Dayton winning his first term in 2010 with 43.6% of the vote against the Republican and Independence Parties. Reed herself was the running mate for 2006 Independence gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson.
Plurality wins are also frequent when multiple candidates run for multiple seats on local bodies like the City Council and School Board.
“Right now in Minnesota, a candidate only has to appeal to his or her narrow base and then make sure that the base turns out,” said Reed. “They don’t have to get 50% of the vote, they just have to get more than the other two candidates.”
The FairVote Minnesota Board Chair suggested a ranked choice voting system would force politicians to moderate their rhetoric and run less antagonistic campaigns to appeal to voters outside their base. The logic goes that if a candidate makes personal attacks against the others running, they will have a harder time picking up second-choice votes from the other candidates’ supporters.
“Ranked choice voting makes an issues-based campaign. It cuts down on the vitriol and the trash-talk and it also decreases the likelihood extremist candidates are going to get in,” said Reed. “Generally, extremist candidates don’t have a wide appeal. They appeal to just a narrow base that turns out like crazy.”
Advocates also argue that ranked choice voting would reduces the risk of a spoiler effect, in which voters two candidates who share a similar base split the vote, resulting in a candidate with minority support winning the plurality of elections.
Critics of ranked choice voting argue the method’s complexity creates confusion, which may deter voter turnout and weaken confidence in the electoral process.
Opponents say such confusion could contribute to unnecessary “ballot exhaustion” — ballots which are discarded in the final round of voting because the voter did not transfer their vote to the remaining top two candidates.
For example, if a voter picks three preferred candidates out of a pool of five and none of their choices make it to the top two, their ballot would not be transferred to either candidate in the final round.
But in cities like Minneapolis and Bloomington, advocates say ranked choice voting has been a success. Exit polls by Edison Research in 2021 found that 88% of voters in Minneapolis and 77% of voters in Bloomington’s municipal elections found it simple to use. In addition, 76% of Minneapolis voters and 61% of Bloomington voters polled said they wanted Ranked Choice Voting to continue. Nearly 100% of ballots cast in Minneapolis were valid.
Voter turnout in Minneapolis was at a 45-year high of 54% while Bloomington’s rose by around 1% over the last election.
Though the Twin Cities, Bloomington, St. Louis Park and Minnetonka have all implemented ranked choice voting at the local level, it’s currently not an option for St. Peter. Unlike those larger municipalities, St. Peter lacks a city charter and cannot change its voting system without the consent of the state.
A bill set to be introduced to the Minnesota Legislature next week could change that. The legislation, supported by FairVote, calls for statewide ranked choice voting in state and federal elections and a local option for cities to implement ranked choice voting in municipal elections if they so choose.
When asked about his position on ranked choice voting, Sen. Nick Frentz (DFL-North Mankato) indicated he would keep an open mind but had more concerns about a statewide change to the election system.
“It seems that Minneapolis is satisfied with the way ranked choice voting operates. It changes the dynamics of the campaign somewhat, and the results are not known quite as quickly. Those are two of the factors we hear about most often when legislators discuss it,” said Frentz. “I do not have a position on ranked choice voting to be required for statewide elections and have not been willing to vote yes, although I keep an open mind.”
At the local level, the St. Peter City Council has refrained from endorsing ranked choice voting, but has expressed an interest in seeing where the legislation goes.
“We’re not considering passing a resolution, but we did put it on our list of legislative priorities … we’re interested in talking about ranked choice voting and weighing the benefits of that,” said City Councilor Keri Johnson.
Johnson first heard Reed speak about ranked choice voting at a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities board meeting, after which Reed contacted her about bringing a presentation to the board.
The City Councilor added that she liked the idea of a system which encourages candidates to reach outside of their base, but still needed to learn more.
“It sort of pushes candidates to appeal to a broader number of people, as opposed to the people that just agree with them on all the issues, so they have to put their energy into a larger scope. I do like that piece of it, but I’m still learning about ranked choice voting,” said Johnson. “I like to know what are the benefits, but also what could be the unintended consequences. What is the cost and what would we need to really think about if this was something the legislature put in place?”
Mayor Shanon Nowell echoed similar sentiments, praising the idea of a voting system that could discourage negative campaigning but also emphasizing that she had more to learn about the topic.
“For myself, I would like to do a bit more research apart from the presentation that we got and think a little bit more about whether we want to take a position on ranked choice voting or not,” said Nowell.