Brian McClung: Ballot ranking is a turnoff for voters

  • Article by: BRIAN MCCLUNG
  • Updated: November 12, 2010 - 6:21 PM

It means fewer people at the polls and a large potential for complications.

In an attempt to clarify the voice of the people, the Star Tribune recently editorialized in favor of an unclear and ultimately destructive electoral method known as "ranked-choice voting" ("Ranked voting looks even better," Nov. 10). However, common sense, our largest city's recent experience with RCV and application of existing law show that RCV reduces voter turnout while increasing confusion and the potential for additional recounts.

RCV proponents claim that having voters rank candidates by order of preference (also sometimes known as "instant-runoff voting") would give elected officials greater clarity about the "policy preferences of a majority of citizens" by taking votes from the lowest-performing candidates and distributing them to other candidates until one reaches 50 percent plus one.

However, there is no evidence this would actually be the case. Minneapolis' experiment with RCV shows this confounding system can have a seriously detrimental impact on citizen involvement.

Minneapolis held its first RCV election last year. Under that system, there is no primary election to reduce the field of candidates who advance to the general election. As a result, 10 little-known candidates challenged incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak, dramatically dividing any potential anti-incumbent voter movement. Rybak took full advantage of the opportunity, adopting a Sculpture Garden Strategy akin to the so-called Rose Garden Strategy incumbent presidents often employ.

He turned down every debate invitation except one, and that was held a day before the election. With only one last-minute debate and little information for voters, turnout slipped to 20 percent and the city had the fewest number of votes cast since 1902, before women had the right to vote.

In addition to creating a situation where incumbents feel free to ignore the electorate, ranked-choice voting statewide would exacerbate the need for recounts in a state that is more prone to them than almost any other.

State law requires an automatic recount when the difference between candidates is less than 0.5 percent. RCV would lead to more recounts. Here's why:

RCV lets voters rank candidates in order of preference. After ballots are cast, several stages of vote-tallying take place to ensure that one candidate receives majority support. The first stage tallies all candidates' votes, but if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one, RCV purges the candidate with the fewest first-place votes.

The purged candidate's ballots are redistributed to remaining candidates according to the second preference on each ballot, and another tally is made. And so on until one candidate goes over the 50 percent mark.

Following existing law, an automatic recount would be required after every stage of the RCV process if the difference between the candidate to be purged and the next lowest vote-getter was less than 0.5 percent. Likewise, the 0.5 percent threshold could not be crossed when tallying the other candidate rankings in subsequent stages, thus triggering even more legally required recounts.

If you think the previous paragraphs are confusing, compare the three words that describe the alternative approach we've used essentially everywhere in the United States for more than 200 years: most votes wins.

RCV proponents claim the outcome -- a victor with some version of "majority" support -- is worth the hassle, confusion and potential for lower turnout because it would provide that victor with a "mandate."

Of course, the public is smarter than that. Citizens, candidates and political parties would know the vote totals at each stage of the tallying and would trumpet a variety of numbers. This hardly provides a "mandate" for someone who wins a version of majority support only with the votes of people who selected him or her as their second or third choice.

Public confidence in election outcomes results from confidence in the election process. Moving to RCV reduces voter turnout and would certainly decrease clarity and confidence. The Legislature should put the brakes on RCV.

Brian McClung is a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and is president of McClung Communications & Public Relations LLC. He can be reached at brian@mcclungpr.com.

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