Minnesota’s experiment with ranked-choice voting (RCV) suffered a stinging setback in Duluth this week — even as the third St. Paul city election to use the vote-by-number method apparently went off without a hitch. Duluth voters rejected RCV’s adoption by a resounding 3-to-1 margin.
That’s disappointing for those, including the Star Tribune Editorial Board, who have been drawn to RCV’s potential to fix much of what ails elections and are eager for more municipalities to prove its worth.
Duluth’s experience with what was known locally as Question 2 shows that opposition to RCV has intensified among politically powerful forces that fear any change in election rules that could diminish their clout. Prominent among Question 2’s opponents were leaders of the local Central Labor Body. They made no secret of their concern that under RCV, labor-supported candidates might be at a disadvantage in contests with more than one winner, such as this year’s two at-large Duluth City Council seats. On Oct. 11, popular retiring Mayor Don Ness and five City Council members announced their opposition to Question 2, sealing its fate.
Duluth voters seem to have been sold by two arguments against RCV that we find questionable. One was that RCV is too complicated. If that were so, Minneapolis voters would have clamored to drop RCV after the 2013 election, which used that method and featured a messy 35-candidate mayoral race. Instead, an exit poll conducted by FairVote Minnesota, an RCV advocacy group, found five out of six respondents reporting that the ranking method of voting was either very or somewhat easy to use.
Also apparently effective was the “it ain’t broke” argument, suggesting that the ills RCV could alleviate have not been problems in Duluth elections. That’s so only if Duluthians are content to narrow the field of candidates via low-turnout primary elections in September rather than a single, larger-turnout election in November. This year’s Duluth primary on Sept. 15 generated turnout just below 17 percent. That’s better than the abysmal single-digit showing in a number of recent municipal primaries in the Twin Cities area, but a far cry from robust participation in democratic decisionmaking.
It must also be acknowledged that one strong argument in RCV’s favor is receding in public consciousness. The RCV movement in Minnesota arose in the wake of Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura’s election in 1998 by a mere 37 percent of the vote. Allowing voters to rank their choices, then counting the second choices of ballots whose first choices have been mathematically eliminated, produces a truer indication of the will of the majority in multiple-candidate elections.
Third parties have flowered and faded throughout Minnesota’s 157 years of statehood. The IP’s flowering appears to have ended, and with it has gone one reason for interest in RCV. Today’s voters may not be drawn to an opportunity to vote for a third-party candidate and still contribute to the selection of the winner, should their first choice falter. We’d bet that a competitive third party will be back one day. When that happens, it will be a shame if RCV is not available to bolster majority rule. We hope its advocates continue to press their case.