Ranked-choice voting hurts Minneapolis minorities

  • Article by: DEVIN RICE
  • Updated: March 5, 2013 - 9:30 PM

In addition to being costly, it leads to voter errors — more so in minority precincts.

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Steve Brandt’s Feb. 28 article (“Funds for election come up short”) addressed only one of the serious shortcomings of Minneapolis’ ranked-choice voting system (RCV). Brandt pointed out that Minneapolis will need $1.7 million to “properly run” the system, which costs five times more per vote than traditional voting, according to the article.

What is more important is the potential disenfranchisement the RCV system inflicts on minority and less-affluent voters. According to official Minneapolis election reports from its first RCV election in 2009, 6.4 percent of all ballots cast contained an error. Even more alarming, 27 percent of the ballots cast in the predominantly East African/Somali precinct in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood contained ballot errors.

In the Fifth Ward, an area of north Minneapolis with an African-American adult population of more than 50 percent, the voter error rate was more than 14 percent. In other predominately African-American, Latino/Hispanic and Native American voting precincts, the incidence of error was nearly 20 percent.

Yet in the most affluent areas around the chain of lakes in south Minneapolis, the ballot error rate was 2 percent. Affluent areas had a proportionally higher voter turnout and lower ballot error rates than other parts of the city. As a result, precincts with large low-income and minority populations counted less than white/affluent voting precincts. That’s not a fair vote at all.

This pattern merits the full attention of legislators, City Council members, city election officials and all people concerned with voting rights.

RCV advocates are now attempting to pass state legislation to permit any city, county, school district or township to adopt RCV by referendum or by unanimous vote of their elected governing bodies. RCV advocates argue it should simply be a matter of local choice. Sounds simple? Wrong!

The claims of these proponents merit strict scrutiny and are highly suspect, based on Minneapolis’ 2009 election.

Our state Supreme Court ruled that RCV was constitutional on its face, but reserved judgment as to its constitutionality “as applied.” The court’s decision cited seven arguments that the city of Minneapolis and FairVote, the organization promoting RCV, made to justify the decision to permit the method. Four of those arguments proved to be false, based on the 2009 election results.

The city and proponents of RCV said:

• RCV would save money because of the need for only one election. Brandt’s article proves otherwise.

• RCV would increase voter turnout. There were 46,000 votes cast in 2009, the lowest turnout in a city election since 1913 (seven years before women were allowed to vote). Voter turnout fell by 34 percent in 2009.

• RCV would eliminate plurality winners and ensure majority winners. This claim also proved untrue. In the Park and Recreation Board’s Fifth District, the incumbent won with just 46.1 percent.

• RCV would promote minority representation. This was perhaps the most serious failure. Census data from 2010 reflect a city that is 40 percent ethnic/racial minorities. The number of minority office holders in city municipal offices decreased in the 2009 election. In the Park Board “at large” race, an incumbent African-American female, the top vote-getter in the 2005 election, lost the 2009 RCV election.

Using traditional election methods, 27 percent of the legislators from Minneapolis are minority and 44 percent of Minneapolis school board members are minority. Of Minneapolis’ 25 municipal elected officials, only two (or 8 percent) are minority. You be the judge of which election method works best in this state for minority groups.

It would be extremely unwise to open the entire state up to such a suspect method of voting. Certainly no one should accept the stated reasons for using RCV as true. They simply have not been proven. Minneapolis voters adopted RCV after being told that it would save money, increase turnout, eliminate plurality winners and increase minority representation. All four claims were false.

Voting ought to be clear and simple. RCV is neither. Voting should give each citizen an equal chance to be heard. The great American experiment was and still is our democracy. By my measure, the 2009 election was a failed experiment. Let’s see what RCV does in 2013 and then determine if it has a role in our precious democracy.

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Devin Rice is a member of the Minneapolis Charter Commission.

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