It was probably inevitable that ranked-choice voting (RCV), long opposed by the state’s Republican Party, would also encounter DFL resistance.
Allowing voters to rank candidates in multicandidate contests is disruptive to the political establishment. It creates a disincentive for negative campaigning, altering long-established thinking about how to win elections. Because it eliminates primaries, it keeps non-establishment candidates in the running longer, giving them more opportunity to catch fire. Since the primaries it eliminates are often low-turnout affairs, it dilutes the power of parties and interest groups.
Those features of the voting method now in use in Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections may help explain the roadblock that a modest, local-option RCV bill has encountered in the Minnesota Senate this session. Senate elections chair Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, cites a different reason for refusing to allow the bill a hearing in her committee: RCV is too complicated for voters, she says.
“If you have to have an informational session to tell people how to vote, it’s too complicated,” Sieben said this week. “We should be doing things to make voting easy and accessible to more Minnesotans, not more difficult.”
Sieben’s indictment of RCV would concern us, too, if she had evidence to back it. But a FairVote Minnesota exit poll after last fall’s Minneapolis election gave RCV high marks for ease of use, despite the complication of a 35-way mayoral race. Nearly five out of six respondents in that election called RCV very or somewhat simple to use.
What’s more, the bill in question does not impose RCV on any jurisdiction. Rather, it would extend the option to use RCV to all Minnesota cities. Current law gives the authority to make that change only to the typically larger cities that operate under legislative-granted charters. Others today need the Legislature’s approval to proceed.
The bill would also set in statute an RCV template that interested jurisdictions could adopt at will. The opportunity for standardization that it presents should aid voting-machine vendors in designing RCV-capable equipment for sale in this state. That standardization would shorten the wait for results after RCV elections.
As the Senate’s gatekeeper on elections policy changes, Sieben is the most vocal among a number of DFLers who are quietly questioning their party platform’s embrace of RCV two years ago. But as city officials from Duluth and Falcon Heights observed on these pages on April 8, other Minnesotans’ interest in RCV is growing. When we caught up this week with Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the RCV bill’s frustrated Senate sponsor, she was on her way to meet with the Crystal charter commission to discuss that city’s interest in RCV.
At a minimum, Rest’s bill deserves an informational hearing this year in Sieben’s committee, so that concerns like Sieben’s can be addressed by RCV’s advocates and debated. Sieben’s resistance should remind advocates that engineering a change of this sort requires years of patient explanation and experimentation, and a willingness to adapt as those experiments proceed.
Another election season will soon start, and no doubt it will show Minnesotans again what they don’t like about conventional two-stage, plurality-wins elections.
We predict that RCV is going to look better and better to Minnesotans who worry about too little participation and too much polarization in their state and local democracy. The Legislature should give municipalities the freedom to try RCV — and the guidance to do it well.