Ranked‑choice voting was introduced to expand democracy and strengthen citizens’ voices. But it may widen disparities in political clout in the Minneapolis city elections this fall.
The proponents of ranked‑choice voting (RCV) praise it for a host of virtues — encouraging third party candidates, improving the civility and substance of campaigns, and lowering the cost of elections by eliminating primaries. Whether RCV delivers on these promises remains unclear.
But there is no doubt that RCV is eroding the practical realization of the principle of “one person one vote.” Minneapolis elections will allow voters to choose up to three candidates. The better educated and more affluent will cast three candidate choices, while those with less income and less education are less likely to do so.
Just after the 2009 Minneapolis election, we conducted a public opinion survey that revealed a series of startling disparities in political voice. Among Minneapolis voters, 61 percent earned $50,000 or more per year; only 39 percent earned less than $50,000. College graduates made up 62 percent of voters; only 38 percent had less formal education.
Minneapolis voters indicated that they understood RCV better than those who did not vote, and they reported feeling more interested in politics and more confident in participating in elections.
Any eligible U.S. citizen can vote, but gaining knowledge about a large field of candidates and how to use RCV requires time and some level of analytic skill.
Although more research is needed, these results may suggest that RCV kept people from voting who didn’t feel confident about their understanding of the complicated system. The apparent effect of RCV in depressing confidence is revealed by a comparison of the Minneapolis and St. Paul elections, which occurred at the same time.
In St. Paul, where RCV was not used in 2009, more than 8 out of 10 voters and non-voters alike were confident that the election gave all candidates a fair chance of being elected. Minneapolis offered a striking contrast: Only 67 percent of non-voters were similarly confident, as compared to 85 percent of voters.
The low Minneapolis turnout in 2009 — just over 1 out of 5 eligible voters cast a ballot — reflected the lack of competition as incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak enjoyed a large lead in polls. But some of the drop-off from 2005 may also have stemmed from confusion among potential voters.
Put another way, the long-studied barriers to voting — including the difficulty of finding time in busy days — may have been aggravated by what some potential voters found to be an intimidating system.
Our concern about RCV widening disparities in electoral participation is echoed by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which reported a “dramatic increase in voting error in low-income, high-minority precincts [compared with] white, affluent precincts.”
Are these findings surprising? Absolutely not. They fit into a decades-old finding from research on voter turnout: Americans enjoying higher income and education turn out at higher rates than the less advantaged. Rigorous studies show that these disparities are produced by seemingly innocuous requirements such as requiring registration to vote, when most of Europe makes registration automatic upon birth. Education and higher income builds a comfort level and analytic skills that are helpful for comparing candidates and deciding which candidate best represents one’s values and beliefs.
The irony of RCV is that its efforts to improve the quality of elections may end up inadvertently erecting yet another hurdle for citizens who lack the time, motivation, and resources to master a complicated election process. RCV may represent another unintended discouragement of participation by our neighbors who are in communities of color and in blue‑collar occupations.
The cumulative effect of RCV may conceivably give citizens with more education and income three votes, compared to less advantaged citizens, who may stay home or choose to cast a ballot for just one candidate, as was the case with many of the 6.5 percent who committed an error on their ballots in 2009.
The 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election may be a close contest decided by our “better-off” citizens. Some may find that fitting. Others may worry about a further erosion in political equality and balance that against whatever benefits may accrue from RCV.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School. Joanne M. Miller is an associate professor in the university’s Department of Political Science.