SPECIAL REPORT: Ranked Choice Voting – The Minneapolis Experiment

 

Watch other videos in this web series:  Video 2 – The Promises of RCV | Video #3 – Goodbye Primary, now what? | Video #4 – The Media and RCV | Video #5 – So you wish politicians could be nicer? | Video #6 – RCV, Money and Politics | Video #7 – Voter Participation | Video #8 – No Majority Winner | Video #9 – RCV: Good for Democracy

Reporting by Andy Birkey, Sheila Regan and Kathryn Nelson
Series Executive Producer: Jeff Achen

Minneapolis is the largest city between Chicago and Seattle, the coldest big city in America and it used to be one of the most Nordic places in the U.S. – a hotbed of Scandinavian and German cultures. Only one African-American had ever been elected mayor of Minneapolis: Sharon Sayles Belton who served from 1994 until 2001.

Since the 1990s, the population of the flour-milling city that once prided itself—literally—on being the capital of White Bread was becoming a vibrant mix of Asian refugees, African immigrants, and Latino workers with growing communities of Somalis, Vietnamese and others adding their cultures to the existing African-American and Native American pockets in the city.

The complexion of Minneapolis was changing fast, with almost 40 percent of the population made up of racial minorities, and demographers predicting that minorities will constitute a majority of the city’s 400,000 residents in the next decade or so.

This change required political change. 

Minneapolis has long been a one-party town. Since the 1970s, every mayor has been a Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party member. Before that, a smattering of independents occasionally won the office. The last Republican to win the office of mayor was in the 1950s. The city council is all DFL save one member of the Green Party.

And, quite frankly, the elections have been dull.

For the most part, the winner in the November election every four years is decided at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor convention in the preceding June by a handful of party activists. Should the activists fail to pick a winner – which has happened a few times – the voters crown the party’s standard-bearer in the sparsely attended early Fall primary. That candidate reaps the benefit of the DFL money and turnout machine in November and cruises to victory. Since 1977, only one race has been decided by less than 10 points.

The real election happens with the DFL party faithful. Voters were simply asked in November to concur.

So, what’s Democracy got to do with it?

“What we know about politics right now is that it prevents the kind of third-party participation and choice that voters want to see in the election, and meanwhile every election becomes highly acrimonious, and the way elections are won is by attacks,” said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota.

“What we know about politics right now is that it prevents the kind of third-party participation and choice that voters want to see in the election, and meanwhile every election becomes highly acrimonious, and the way elections are won is by attacks,” said Jeanne Massey, executive director at FairVote Minnesota. “Ranked choice voting would not just foster civility in the campaign process, but foster the kind of compromise and consensus building in the governing process because candidates would need to reach beyond their narrow base, appeal to a broad majority, not just to be elected but to be re-elected in the process. So they go in with a much broader mandate of a majority of voters and that creates a new kind of environment for governing.”

Ranked choice voting had already been tried in a few American cities – Cambridge, Mass., San Fransico and Oakland, Calif., for example. Minneapolis adopted the unfamiliar new system in time for the 2009 city election, but Mayor R.T. Rybak was in the middle of an easy romp to his third straight victory – he won by 40 points – and hardly anyone noticed the change in election procedures.

That would change completely in 2013, after Rybak had announced he was not going to run for a fourth term, throwing the door open to an avalanche of candidates, a cascade of media confusion, and a three-ring circus.

VIDEO: How does Ranked Choice Voting Work?

Advocates of the new voting system have promised it will change the way politics and elections are done in Minneapolis, and in some ways it has. Fairvote Minnesota says ranked choice voting reduces negative campaigning, promotes civility, opens the political process to new voices, promotes more diverse representation, and eliminates the “spoiler” or “Nader” effect, all promises that appeared to ring true on election night in Minneapolis.

Voter participation, a key promise of the new system, was difficult to measure. Voter turnout continued to lag in Minneapolis with only 33 percent voter turn out.

Table 1: TurnoutBut, RCV advocates don’t claim the reform will not necessarily increase turnout. They do claim that it ensures more voters have a voice in the system. So, It’s worth comparing previous primary elections’ participation or turnout with the 2013 general election turnout. Ranked Choice Voting eliminates the primary, and with no endorsement, the decision rests completely with the general election voters rather than the primary election voters. And, the 2013 general election turnout was well above the average vote in the primary in which a low number of mostly party faithful picked the eventual winner in November.

For other promises, however, ranked choice voting appeared to fall short – at least in the Minneapolis experience. The claim that it reduces the cost of elections and campaigning was not borne out by the results, which showed record-breaking campaign spending in 2013. In theory, RCV combines two elections into one: the primary election and general election. However, the cost of voter education and a lack of ballot counting technology for ranked choice voting generally offset the savings.

Secondly, RCV was supposed to reduce the amount of money spent by political candidates since, in theory, the candidates campaigned for only one election. But, a campaign is a campaign and spending continued to set new records.

A promise that RCV upholds the principle of majority rule also fell flat as the eventual winner under the system came up 1 percent shy of 50 percent – a technical glitch or a key failure depending on your perspective.

RCV was a new system for Minneapolis, one that critics were quick to decry as confusing. Mike Griffin of Fairvote Minnesota explains that the system is actually pretty simple, despite calls from critics that some communities might not understand it.

“I was getting ice cream and I wanted to get a vanilla ice cream but there was no vanilla ice cream. I naturally went to my second choice and that was strawberry ice cream. When the young lady told me there was no strawberry ice cream, I didn’t run around and have a temper tantrum, I went to my third choice, my chocolate,” he said. “This is something we do all the time. So when our opposition comes back and says communities of color, seniors, young people are not going to understand how to rank three choices and vote… this is something we do everyday. And I think most voters like it.”

Though it has been tried in other cities, the Minneapolis experience was an important one for RCV backers.

“The mayoral election in Minneapolis was probably the biggest demonstration of this system yet in the country,” says Massey.

Goodbye primary. Now what?

When Minneapolis voters approved ranked choice voting in 2006, it meant the elimination of the fall primary, and the party endorsement process fell heavily to the conventions in June.

Minneapolis politics is dominated by one party – the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. In June, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party activists met at the endorsement convention to pick the party’s standard-bearer. In a conventional election, the candidate selected by the activists would cruise to victory in the fall primary and then the November election. But in 2013, the party activists couldn’t decide between Minneapolis City Council Member Betsy Hodges and environmental businessman Mark Andrew. The convention adjourned without a winner.

With no candidate backed by the party infrastructure and no primary in the fall to winnow down the candidates, the voters would have a wide range of candidates from which to choose. In fact, 10 candidates ran as DFLers, which meant each would have to distinguish themselves in the general election instead of a fall primary.

2013 gave Minneapolis voters – and RCV advocates – its first real test.

A more open ballot – and the perception that long-shot candidates could win – also meant there would be a lot of candidates, particularly given Minneapolis’ ridiculously low threshold to run for mayor. A candidate need only spell his or her name and give the city $20 in order to run. For $20, anyone’s pet issue or ego could be on the ballot in front of tens of thousands of voters.

By the filing deadline, 35 candidates had qualified for the ballot.

Minneapolis residents got to choose between a pirate, “The Rock,” candidates in the Libertarian, Republican, Green, Socialist, and Independence Parties. There was even a candidate in the Lauraist-Communist Party whose platform reads, “Laura Ingalls Wilder is God.” Not surprisingly,  the media made a spectacle of these candidates including Captain Jack Sparrow who wore a pirate outfit on the campaign trail. Candidate Jeff Wagner made waves with his campaign ad. It featured him emerging from a Minneapolis lake in nothing but his underwear.

As campaign season wore on, it was clear that a handful of candidates had the attention of the majority of voters. Hodges and Andrew, frontrunners for Democratic Party establishment types were joined by City Council Member Don Samuels, former City Council Member Dan Cohen, and independent and business-friendly Cam Winton. They were all polling at or near 10 percent before the election, a relatively high number in a race with 35 candidates.

Too many choices?

So, how are you supposed to decide on a mayoral candidate when there are 35 options?

“I mean 35 candidates for mayor—that was difficult for anybody, even myself!” said City Council Member Blong Yang. On the ballot, “it was hard to find my candidates that I wanted to vote for even on there,” he said.

The enormous number of candidates meant voters had 105 ovals to choose from when marking their ballot. With all those candidates, though, did each of them really have a chance? Former City Council Member Gary Schiff doesn’t think so.

SampleBallot-1

“It was quite clear that both Mark Andrew’s campaign and Betsy Hodges’ campaign were the two strongest funded campaigns all the way through the end,” he said, “and in many ways I think this was a two person race from the beginning.

Anthony Newby, Executive Director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), doesn’t see having 35 mayoral candidates as a problem.

“We’re on the side of access to elections are important,” Newby said of the organization. “I know we had pirates and all types of pirate parties and this and that- I don’t have a problem with that. If they can go out and do the work- and get the votes and get the support of the people- they should absolutely be allowed to run.”

Access to more people, Newby said, is better than less access.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “Those who get out and do the work I think will be rewarded and let’s not worry about the fees and how long the list is.”

The overwhelming number of candidates is something FairVote and the city were keen to rectify by increasing the $20 application fee. And in 2014, voters approved a measure to increase the filing fee for mayor to $500 and the filing fee for city council to $250.

Money buys elections

Bob Carney, who ran for mayor with an alternative transit platform, felt that while there wasn’t a primary, in a way there was a “primary based on money instead of votes,” he said. “And that primary was at least as powerful from the media’s point of view in filtering out consideration of candidates as a primary was before.”

Table-2: Campaign SpendingCampaign spending in 2013 was the highest in city history with almost $2 million spent by the 35 candidates. That dwarfed previous elections. The most spent previously was in 2001, another contentious race, where almost $1 million was spent.

“Our campaign broke a fundraising record for a local campaign, and right behind me, nobody has raised as much money as Betsy Hodges raised for a local campaign,” said Mark Andrew. “We both broke the record.”

Andrew’s political action committee, Coalition for a Better Minneapolis, dramatically outspent Hodge’s political action committee, Committee for a Greater Minneapolis, by more than $147,000. Though Hodges won the election, it’s not entirely clear if ranked choice voting should be credited with changing the dynamics of PAC influence in campaigns.

If unlimited funds weren’t an option, candidates tried different methods of gaining traction. Case in point: Captain Jack Sparrow, who was decked out in a pirate costume complete with three pointed hat and sword.

“It shouldn’t be necessary to dress like a Walt Disney character to get attention,” he said. “My ideas have merit- anybody can look at my blog… and there you’ll see I have very serious ideas- and some very practical solutions.”

Sidestepping the ‘Ralph Nader effect’

Among the promises of RCV was a pathway for third party candidates. In theory, RCV would free major candidates from the fear that that a third party or independent candidate would spoil their election. Call it the “Ralph Nader effect.” Many critics blamed the Green Party candidate for ruining Al Gore’s chances in the 2000 election by drawing liberal votes away from Gore. Under the RCV system, Gore wouldn’t have had to worry about his votes being divided because in the second round, the people that wanted Gore as their second choice would have their votes rolled over to him.

Thomas O’Connell, a Social Science Professor at Metro State University in St. Paul, said he supported RCV because it was one system that would allow for more choices and over time, would “nurture different political perspectives.”

Minnesota, in fact, has a history of supporting third party candidates, such as after World War I, when rural farmers and labor organizing unions joined together to form a political party, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party. “In 1930 they elected Floyd Olson, probably the most popular governor in Minnesota history,” O’Connell said.

RCV had changed the playing field for non-DFL candidates. Cam Winton ran as an independent on moderate-conservative platform and was in the top tier of candidates.

“For the first time in probably anyone’s recent memory we saw a valid conservative, viable, engaging candidate run for the office of mayor all the way through the general election,” Massey said. “That hasn’t happened in a very, very long time in Minneapolis. Ranked choice voting can foster that kind of choice and candidacy in every election and Republicans are starting to take notice.”

“He wouldn’t have been able to mount a campaign without ranked choice voting,” she added. “Why would you run only to be eliminated in August [in the primary]? You wouldn’t spend that kind of money or political capital to do that. Ranked choice voting provided that platform for candidates from all political perspectives to participate in the process. That’s important for democracy.”

Stephanie Woodruff, a DFL mayoral candidate with support from the Independence Party, wouldn’t have run without RCV.

“No one knew who I was,” she said. “I didn’t have the financial backing like a lot of the other candidates who had run… RCV really allowed me to jump in at the last minute.”

A new way to campaign

In addition to a more open ballot, ranked choice voting forced candidates and activists to campaign in a much different way.

“With RCV, you can leave no voter unturned, you can leave no voter unasked, because you can’t just play to your base and leave that alone,” said Betsy Hodges, Minneapolis Mayor.

“With RCV, you can leave no voter unturned, you can leave no voter unasked, because you can’t just play to your base and leave that alone,” said Betsy Hodges. “You have to go everywhere, and so we were going to mount that kind of campaign regardless but ranked choice voting really rewarded that method.”

She said that RCV encouraged campaigns to reach out to all voters, even those voters who made it clear the candidate wasn’t their favorite.

“It meant that the conversation could continue, that them saying that, ‘I’ve already made my choice,’ didn’t mean that the phone was then hung up, ‘Well, okay you have a second choice, would you please consider me?’ and that certainly mattered in the end,” said Hodges. “Our second choice strategy clearly worked given the number of second choice votes that I got, it widened the margin, it wasn’t the margin of victory but it certainly widened the margin.”

In some cases, RCV even allowed for unconventional alliances of sorts. For instance, Cam Winton, who ran as an independent found a rapport with DFL Betsy Hodges, and the two complimented each other throughout the campaign.

Nick Espinosa, an organizer for Occupy Homes Minnesota who worked on former City Council candidate Ty Moore’s campaign, believes RCV does allow for third party and independent candidates to have a better chance because “people don’t have to be afraid to vote their values,” he said. “They don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils.” At the same time, he doesn’t believe RCV swayed the mayoral or the city council elections either way. “I really look at organizing as the fundamental factor in campaigns,” Espinosa said. “There’s going to be a lot of external factors, but if you can make the connections, if you can talk to enough voters, and get them to come to the polls, you can win.”

The media: RCV educator and ringmaster of the three-ring circus

The media also had to adapt to a new kind of election.

“The media was perplexed because they couldn’t figure out how to give serious coverage to 35 candidates, time, space, column inches whatever you want to call it,” said Prof. David Schultz. “Instead they seemed to focus on the circus aspect.”

While the media had fun with the eccentric slate of candidates, the media was also instrumental in educating voters about ranked choice voting. Virtually every outlet, from the major papers and broadcast news to public radio and community media, provided informative explanations of how the system works.

In a post election survey of voters, 74 percent of those who voted in the 2013 election said they learned about ranked choice voting from the newspaper and 69 percent said the local television news. Both were well above other means of learning about the new process.

In most elections, candidates seek newspaper endorsements, even though they rarely make much of a difference in a Democrat versus Republican race. Under ranked choice voting, that changed.

“The endorsement of the Star Tribune of Betsy Hodges is the exception to the rule that endorsements don’t matter by the media,” said University of Minnesota Prof. Larry Jacobs.

Given the large number of candidates at 35, and a tier of 6 or so candidates polling at the top, a newspaper’s endorsement helped highlight candidates in a crowded field. The endorsement by the Star Tribune of Betsy Hodges became important in the race.

“It was important because it was a very important election,” said Jacobs. “There were many, many candidates. Voters were entirely confused as to their support for any one candidate because there were so many and because they had been so clouded by the uber civility.”

RCV changed the way campaigns are run in Minneapolis. Candidates reached out to more voters, and voters had many more choices – 35! But, the promise that campaigns would be cheaper did not hold in Minneapolis, as candidates spent a record $2 million, more than double the previous record.

So you want a ‘nice’ election, huh?

The Minneapolis mayoral and city council elections in 2013 demonstrated the power of ranked choice voting to make elections more civil.

“It fosters that kind of civility because it requires candidate to reach beyond their base and seek 2nd and 3rd choice votes,” said Jeanne Massey or FairVote Minnesota, the main group behind the new voting system.

One of the promises of RCV was that it would produce a friendlier campaign, and many agreed that it was indeed more civil.

“I think you didn’t see direct attacks from candidates,” said former City Council Member Gary Schiff. “I think we saw the race focused on policies, so people got to talk about attitudes for economic development—attitudes addressing equity gaps in our city and we got to really focus on the issues.” Unlike other cities where personal attacks rule the day, in Minneapolis the campaign “focused on policies and not personalities,” Schiff said.

“That didn’t mean that there weren’t differences between the candidates,” said Massey. “There certainly were differences that came out but they didn’t attack the other person in order to communicate those differences.”

For Betsy Hodges, who won the race for mayor, it meant a new kind of campaign strategy.”

“Ranked choice voting was just crucial in terms of our overall strategy and certainly crucial when it came to the end,” said Betsy Hodges, Minneapolis Mayor.

“Ranked choice voting was just crucial in terms of our overall strategy and certainly crucial when it came to the end,” she said. “And we had a ranked choice voting strategy from day one. I started asking for second choice votes from day one – and third choice for that matter, and the indignity of asking for a third choice vote wore off after a while because it was necessary it was necessary in the end.”

How civil was the Minneapolis mayoral campaign?

“The tenor of the campaigns was far more positive than usual, we literally sang ‘Kumbaya’ at the end of our last forum,” Hodges remembered.

But, did the civility dampen important discussions of the issues?

“I think the dark cloud here is that the debate was so muffled, so painfully politically correct because each candidate was fearful that they attacked another candidate they might lose the second or third preference from voters,” said University of Minnesota Prof. Larry Jacobs.

Mark Andrew, who lost a close race with Betsy Hodges, said the civility meant that voters didn’t get the full story from candidates.

“Candidates have an obligation to point out their differences with the other candidates, ranked choice voting had a editing effect,” he said. “What has ranked choice voting done to improve the process? What problems were resolved? It didn’t further public insight on where candidates stood.”

“We hear that issue a lot as well that ranked choice voting was too civil and created not enough difference between the candidates,” said Jeanne Massey of FairVote. “What we understand that to mean is that people are so used to hearing attacks as the way to differentiate that it takes some time to accustom to a new way of hearing those differences. There were 3 different debates for mayor and nearly all the candidates – the top candidates – participated in all 3 debates. There were several differences that came forward depending on the side you were on on those issues.”

She added, “You knew where candidates stood on issues of education, on the Vikings stadium, who would be pro and who would be con. Those differences clearly came out. They did not come out in the form of attacking someone. What we did see is that if a candidate did engage in attacking directly, that voters noticed that right away and began to shift their votes. And so candidates really pulled back quickly from continuing any kind of attack.”

RCV’s promise of civility in campaigning appears to have won out in Minneapolis. Who can remember anytime opposing candidates stand on stage, hand-in-hand singing Kumbaya? Though candidates reported having a harder time differentiating themselves under RCV, they all agreed that the negativity that plagues elections was muted in Minneapolis in 2013.

Power to the people

Minneapolis voters seem to love ranked choice voting. They did, after all, approve the new voting method by a citywide vote of 65 percent in 2006. And, it seemed after the 2013 election, that most voters embraced the new system.

“I know there’s been a lot of confusion over the ranked choice voting. It really isn’t that difficult,” said voter Alan Olson. “35 candidates running for mayor – somebody with you know 7 percent of the vote could win and that wouldn’t make anybody happy.”

In exit polls of over 2,400 Minneapolis residents in the 2013 election, 68 percent said they want to continue to use ranked choice voting over the traditional voting system. And, 61 percent said they’d like to see it used for statewide elections.

“It gives you more opportunity instead of picking one person,” voter Sunyman Abdirahman said. “You got choices to make to see which candidate is better for you.”

According to a city survey of 800 voters, 92 percent knew they’d be voting through RCV, 82 percent used the ranking system instead of just selecting one candidate, 87 percent found the system easy to use, and 81 percent said they understood the system fairly or perfectly well.

Judith Rivkin, an election judge, found that voters knew the system well and that there was very little confusion. She said the election judges had handouts for votes and explained it to them.

“We got the handout. Many people have come in with their own sample ballots and many people have looked up and seen the video how to do it online. It’s been very smooth process.”

On Minneapolis’ north side, which has been hit hard by poverty and violent crime, elections take on a stronger meaning. The type of voting system is less important than the issues that residents face every day. For some, ranked choice voting is just a distraction.

“We don’t care about rank choice voting. It is not the biggest problem in our community, said Mysnikol Miller. “It is just something that distracts us from the real issues.”

It may not be the biggest problem, but for Miller at least it is a step in the right direction.

“With rank choice voting, you’re getting the majority of people that agree on that person or 50 percent plus one, which is much better. It’s not ideal – nothing is – but it’s a much better way to have representation.”

For northside residents like Miller, minority and low-income representation and participation are key to building trust in an electoral system. One of the big questions that came up in the aftermath of the election was how well RCV encouraged or discouraged disadvantaged populations to participate.

Anthony Newby, the Executive Director from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), said the organization teamed up with FairVote Minnesota prior to the election for the express person of delivering the message to low income and underrepresented voters. They knocked on 20,000 doors in North Minneapolis alone, and Ranked Choice Voting was a big part of the message, he said.

“There’s a long history in communities of color of rigged elections, of locking people out, and frankly the narrative that we heard going into the election was low income people won’t really understand Ranked Choice Voting,” Newby said. “We never believed that from day one. The results frankly were across the city we have more equity than we’ve ever had at City Council,” he said.

Pointing to the Ward 5 City Council race, which was won by Hmong candidate Blong Yang, and the 6th Ward race, won by Somali candidate Abdi Warsame, Newby believes RCV actually helped with turnout. “We wouldn’t describe it as the only factor, but it certainly wasn’t a barrier to an equitable election,” he said.

That’s a trend that Prof. David Schultz of Hamline University says is good for the city, and under ranked choice voting, coalition building between different communities will likely increase.

“There’s no question that the city of Minneapolis undergoing a major – what I call demographic and more importantly generational change,” he said. “No one group is going to be the majority in the way it was White Caucasian Lutheran for so many years but its going to be lots of different coalitions out there.”

For Schultz, this is where ranked choice voting may be ideal for a city like Minneapolis.

“Ranked choice voting will be a great way to sort of aggregate the preferences of different groups together, to be able to select who they want to govern them and so I think one of the things we ought to be thinking about down the line is how this election in terms of new mayor – who was not sort of the part of the old guard, and several city council members were reelected – a first Somali, a first Hispanic – that this is representing a new face new for the city of Minneapolis. How ranked choice voting might be able to be a an effective tool to allow these new people, new – what I call new Minnesotans, new Minneapolitans – how they can now express their views and form working coalitions to govern themselves.”

To Betsy Hodges, ranked choice voting may be the only way to bridge the city’s growing and diverse populations.

“By 2040, Minneapolis is projected to be a majority-minority city, meaning that whites won’t be the majority anymore,” she said. “It’s great. It’s a great asset for a global, cosmopolitan city and it will have an impact on how we do voter education and outreach, whom we find running for office, issues to address, as it should. I think giving people more options in that environment and more incentive to really explore their options is a really useful way to proceed.”

Nick Espinosa, an organizer from Occupy Homes Minnesota, said often people who have been marginalized or pushed out of the process aren’t excited about electoral politics, and rightfully so.

“Politicians have not represented those communities for a long time,” Espinosa said. “In fact- what they have done is represent the interest of the financial elite and that is why we have the worst disparity gaps in the country in Minneapolis.”

“What was sad was that at the end of the day those wards and areas of Minneapolis that traditionally had low voter turnout; it was still very low turnout,” said mayoral candidate Stephanie Woodruff, pointing to factors such as the bad weather that day and fatigue at the end of the campaign, plus people thinking: ‘they are going to ignore me anyway so I’m not going to vote,’” she said.

In academia, professors have been debating just this issue: Does a reform like ranked choice voting increase or decrease the participation of disadvantaged populations?

Professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota says the data does not necessarily show an increase in participation.

“If you look at the likelihood of a white or upper income voter ranking all three of their opportunities for candidates, that was much more likely than was the case for voters who were lower income or were from a community of color,” he said. “Now that is a significant difference; it’s very statistically robust and it’s an issue.”

Professor David Schultz of the University of Hamline disagrees.

“One of the biggest criticisms is the argument that ranked choice voting creates biases in terms of voting patterns based upon race and class, and specifically that it disadvantages poor people or disadvantages people of color,” he said. “Well, first off, no one ever made the argument that said that ranked choice voting was going to solve the structural inequalities that plague our political system in the United States.”

Schultz continued, “Again no one is argued that ranked choice voting was going solve all these pre-existing problems in terms of the racial disparities, class disparities, on top of which this argument that says that well its too complex to understand or its too difficult. There’s an incredible amount of elitism in that statement that seems to suggest that the people can’t figure out how to vote, and therefore we need to make it as simple as possible. Well, the fact is that most residents in Minneapolis expressed satisfaction.”

Mike Griffin of Fairvote Minnesota agreed with that sentiment.

“I think the argument from the opponents of ranked choice voting that it somehow disenfranchises communities of color is bizarre,” he said. “I think that, one: its very simple. People rank every single day and African Americans and communities of color have the same ability to rank as my White brothers and sisters.”

The debate over participation is one that’s central to the promise of ranked choice voting. Did it increase voter participation in 2013? Minneapolis turnout during municipal elections has been falling for years. From highs of 45 percent in 1993 and 46 percent in 1997, the voter turnout percentage plunged to 20 percent in 2009, the first year ranked choice was implemented. In 2013 – during a very contentious mayoral race – only 33 percent turned out. That compared to 2005’s 30 percent without RCV.

But, in a city where the primary was often the “real” election and the DFL’s standard-bearer was often picked by a low turnout of the party faithful or endorsed by party activists in the summer, RCV gave voters the chance to evaluate all candidates at the general election. In 2005, the last year with a primary, only 14.5 percent of Minneapolis voters voted in the primary. In fact over the last two decades, the turnout for the primary was 19.8 percent. If you compare the primary turnout — which was often the most important election in the race for mayor — with the turnout in 2013 at 33 percent, then RCV did give voters more say in who is elected.

In other words, all voters — not the DFL party establishment — had more say in the 2013 mayoral election than they had in the past

No majority winner

On election night, Betsy Hodges won after dozens of rounds of eliminations of losing candidates. The losing candidates’ votes were transferred up the chain until the ballot counting was exhausted.

Betsy Hodges won with 48.95 percent of the vote. But, one of the central promises of RCV is that a candidate will win with a majority of the votes? What happened in Minneapolis?

“We hear this kind of concern often because the threshold under ranked choice voting is set to make sure that a candidate has support of a majority or 50 percent plus 1,” she said. But, sometimes it doesn’t.

“The candidate who emerges has the broadest support possible. If that falls shy by half a percent of 50 percent of the initial ballots cast, that’s not a concern because it will always be a majority of the final ballots cast. In that round when the candidate is elected, it’s always a voter’s choice to rank as far as they wish on that ballot so if there are ballots that get exhausted before that final round that’s a voter’s preference.”

In other words, the counting system in Minneapolis counted all ballots — even those where someone only ranked one candidate or those ballots where all three of the choiced ranked were already eliminated from counting. With 35 candidates on the ballot, those numbers added up.

“So it didn’t surprise us entirely in that big long ballot that the eventual winner would fall slightly shy of a majority of initial ballots cast but what the winner did do — Mayor Betsy Hodges did do — was built a broad coalition of support and build that coalition of new majority of support and she now has that kind of mandate as she takes office.”

While a majority may not have been reached in 2013, under RCV, Minneapolis voters got a much closer election. For 30 years, the elections for mayor were a blowout with the DFL Party-backed candidate winning by 10 or more percentage points. The last time Minneapolis saw a close election was 1975 when the race was decided by tenths of a percent.

In 2013, Minneapolis voters got their first real taste of ranked choice voting and they appeared to like it. Interviews with voters, and official surveys point to a popular system.

Ranked Choice Voting: Good for democracy

In 2006, Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment that added ranked choice voting to the city charter — essentially Minneapolis’ constitution. Voters liked the system and are unlikely to vote to remove it anytime soon. For Minneapolis, ranked choice voting is here to stay.

“I think RCV deepens democracy and that can only be good in having communities work together and come together, having people have more of a voice, having people not have to make one decision but a set of decisions allows for more conversation, allows for conversation between and among communities, and between and among neighborhoods. I do think it is a positive move forward,” Betsy Hodges, Minneapolis Mayor.

For Betsy Hodges, the first Minneapolis mayor elected in a contentious ranked choice voting election, the new system is good. “I think RCV deepens democracy and that can only be good in having communities work together and come together, having people have more of a voice, having people not have to make one decision but a set of decisions allows for more conversation, allows for conversation between and among communities, and between and among neighborhoods. I do think it is a positive move forward.”

Ranked choice voting resulted in more choices for voters — 35 choices for mayor in fact. It provided an important opening for candidates who might not have had a chance otherwise such as conservative Cam Winton.

Candidate Stephanie Woodruff, who said she wouldn’t have run under the old system, gave the process high marks. “Overall, the process is an excellent way to start pulling people out, and making sure that their voice is heard. And I think it was a huge success for Minneapolis in terms of giving the people the choice instead of just a couple of choices in a primary.”

Civility ruled the day in Minneapolis as well as candidates held hands and sang Kumbaya at one debate. Most of the candidates TheUptake interviewed noticed a markedly more civil campaign season than in the past. And candidates even noted that they worked together to garner second and third choice votes from voters

Those were all promises that RCV advocates made, and the voting system confirmed those promises in 2013. Less negativity and more cooperation among candidates is something we should strive for in a healthy democracy, and ranked choice voting did just that.

Some promises, however, weren’t delivered.

RCV promised a majority winner on election night, but in the Minneapolis experience, the winner fell short by just over 1 percent.

Perhaps the biggest promise that went unmet was the promise to decrease the cost of campaigns and reduce money in politics. In Minneapolis’ 2013 elections, candidates set records for campaign expenditures. The top 2 candidates both broke the record for the most money spent in a campaign. Observers note that money in politics is not something RCV is likely to fix.

“Money matters,” says Woodruff. “I mean, money buys elections. It really does. I mean, you’ve got to have that base, you’ve got to have those supporters, you’ve got to have that money to be able to do the things and get the message out.”

“True electoral progressive reform is a multi-issue entity,” said former City Council Member Gary Schiff.

“True electoral progressive reform is a multi-issue entity,” said former City Council Member Gary Schiff. “We need to get the money out of politics if we are going to continue to reform our electoral system. To really put all candidates on an equal playing field, you’d have a system of public financing of campaigns that doesn’t allow for big corporations to bundle money, to allow big entities to effect a race based on contracts or based on lobbying agendas and until we embrace a full progressive agenda for campaign finance reform, I think we are going to be looking at [ranked choice voting] as a little too much of the solution and in reality its just part of the solution. We have to get money out of politics.

Metro State Prof. Tom O’Connell agrees. “I think one of the criticisms about American politics is it pretty much boils down to buying your choice, either A or B, Democrats or Republicans and so you get in a situation where there’s few choices and often times you have to make a strategic vote. Many political scientists and activists always wish we had a system where there could be more choices, where over time you could nurture different political perspectives. So I think ranked choice voting might be one way. “

Ranked choice voting has performed better than the traditional system on coalition-building, opening access to third parties, and combating negative campaigning which is why advocates are looking to expand the system in Minnesota. But, change is hard.

RCV for statewide elections? Not anytime soon.

In 2014, a bill was pending in the Minnesota Legislature that would have allowed municipalities to try RCV if they wanted. Currently, Minneapolis and St. Paul have RCV because they are home rule cities governed by a charter — essentially a city constitution –  and voters voted to amend that charter to enact RCV. If the city is a statutory city, the city’s laws are governed by state statute. Voters in the city cannot change the type of voting system unless the lawmakers allow it through statute.

RCV advocates wanted to give those cities, which are the majority of cities in Minnesota, the option to enact RCV. But, unfortunately, the bill failed. Why would elected leaders stop a bill that would allow cities and voters more choices in their elections?

Political insiders fear a loss of power.

“The people who are advocating against ranked choice voting have the power in that system, so now when you take away that power from that small sliver of people who can turn out 1 or 2 thousand people and win a primary election, to a general election. It’s a threat to them and I think it’s a rational threat to their power,” he said.

That’s an assessment that Prof. David Schultz agrees with.

“The old guard of the Democratic Party didn’t want to change the rules. Once you start to change the rules for how you vote, it becomes a matter of uncertainty and they don’t like uncertainty. What we found was Betsy Hodges and a lot of people in Minneapolis who were in strong support of ranked choice voting represent a new generation of the Democrats. This was about generational change, or about a generational conflict.”

Jeanne Massey said it’s likely those who are benefiting from the status quo. “What we suspect and we don’t know who is behind all the opposition at the Capitol — there are certain sectors within the political circles that simply like the way things currently work. The status quo benefits them and any change to that system they are opposed to and I think we are starting to see some of that pushback here at the Capitol.”

Despite the setback, Massey is convinced that ranked choice voting is here to stay.

“Ranked choice voting will be the way that future voting is going to work,” said Massey. “It’s the kind of reform that really is a voter’s voting system.”

This special report was made possible through generous support from the Joyce Foundation.

Jeff Achen

Jeff was a television, print, and digital reporter from 1999 until 2009. He has worked extensively in the nonprofit and journalism communities of the Twin Cities since 2006, serving as a digital strategist for Minnesota Philanthropy Partners and GiveMN.org from 2010 until 2014. Jeff is an active video producer, photographer and owner of CallSign51, a creative services company specializing in video production and photography. He is a longstanding member of the Society of Professional Journalists and former Minnesota Pro Chapter board member. Additionally, he is a Navy veteran and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Nepal).

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