The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 31, 2013

Our View: Ranked choice gets a serious test

Why It Matters: Minneapolis is about to give its "ranked choice voting" process a serious test with a 35-candidate mayoral election.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — It is quite the field, the collection of candidates seeking to become mayor of Minnesota’s largest city. Thirty-five of them, some serious, some ... well, we’ll be charitable and just say that they seem implausible.

As Minneapolis voters sort through their options for Tuesday’s election, they’ll be picking not only their top choice for the job, but their second and third choices. Minneapolis (and its eastern sibling, St. Paul) uses “ranked-choice voting” in its municipal elections.

Here’s how it works: The voter picks her favored candidate in column one, her second choice in column two, her third in column three. During the vote count, the bottom candidates are eliminated. The ballots that had them in column one now have column two’s choice used, then column three, until somebody has a majority of the vote. (A ballot in which all three choices have been eliminated is deemed “exhausted” and no longer counts.)

One benefit of this system: The city saves the expense of a primary election, which would have winnowed this giant field to two — but done so with a minuscule turnout. Primaries simply don’t draw voters as a general election does.

Eliminating the primary also figures to limit the power wielded by the determined ideological minority of activists. Even though Minneapolis’s municipal elections are officially nonpartisan, the city has become a DFL stronghold, and in cities (or districts) dominated by one party, the extreme voice of that party eventually gains control through the primaries. Ranked-choice voting allows other voices access to the general electorate.

It has softened the rhetoric in this election; it appears the leading candidates believe it to be beneficial to avoid antagonizing the supporters of their rivals. The tone is more along the lines of: If I’m not your first choice, can I be your second?

Minneapolis, a generation or more ago, was a place where moderate Republicans such as Arne Carlson (who eventually became governor) could thrive. That’s died out. But this election system has made Cam Winton, a Republican who is liberal on such social issues as gay marriage, a viable mayoral possibility.

Ranked-choice voting may have its flaws, one of which, at least now, would include its novelty and resulting bewilderment. Another: We are unlikely to know on Tuesday night who won; depending on how deep the vote count goes, we may not know on Wednesday either.

But if the process can handle such a fractured field and produce a legitimate winner, it may be worth replicating elsewhere in the state, including partisan elections for the Legislature, state offices and Congress. We certainly know that the primary system we use for those elections is flawed.