Minneapolis voting system unfairly bashed

  • Article by: JAVIER MORILLO and RICHARD CARLBOM
  • Updated: August 12, 2013 - 7:37 PM

Commentary about the ranked choice voting method seemed to assume dimwittedness.

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Counterpoint

Larry Jacobs and Joanne Miller are well-respected professors of political science. But the “science” seemed to be lacking from their recent commentary on ranked-choice voting (“Ranked choice could diminish equality,” Aug. 7).

They were quick to suggest that RCV disenfranchises certain voters. But they did so with only the flimsiest of evidence — a practice to which we are by now well-accustomed with regard to this topic.

They pointed to selective results of a three-and-a-half-year-old survey that had — in the authors’ own words — only a “modest” number of respondents. Absent were year-over-year comparisons; some potentially important data comparing Minneapolis and St. Paul, and any effort to adjust for the unique electoral dynamics in play in 2009 in the two cities.

The authors also made claims about the ability of low-income voters to “understand” the new voting system, but did not offer a single piece of evidence. Their assumptions are questionable at best, and many may find them downright offensive.

Unlike Jacobs’ and Miller’s article, the case for RCV is well-supported by facts. In 2009, the first year Minneapolis used RCV, city voters cast approximately 46,000 ballots in 25 races. Only one ballot went uncounted.

A poll after the 2009 election found that 95 percent of those surveyed — and 97 percent of people of color — found it simple to use. The poll also found that 95 percent of voters who didn’t show up to the polls that year did so for traditional reasons — lack of time, interest or knowledge — not because they were deterred by the voting method.

It’s clear that Jacobs and Miller went into their analysis biased against RCV. They seem to think that the process is so daunting that it scares away voters or that RCV demands too much from voters in terms of learning about various candidates. It is hard enough, they seem to imply, for people to make an informed choice about one candidate, let alone to rank them in order of preference.

Even though people rank things every day in other aspects of their lives, Jacobs and Miller (and others in their field) would apparently have us believe that such mental feats are beyond those same people when they step into a voting booth.

This is an unfounded, if not insulting, argument, and one we’ve heard many times before. Voters aren’t incapable of expressing preferences at the ballot box any more than they are in the marketplace, in educating our children, in choosing a home, or in any of the other ways we rank and choose in our daily lives.

Of the 13 races for the Minneapolis City Council in 2009, voters in 10 of them provided a second choice more than 50 percent of the time. In only one race, in which a popular incumbent faced off against a single challenger, were there fewer than one-third as many second-choice votes as first-choice votes.

By contrast, the race that year for City Council in the Fifth Ward, the city’s most diverse, featured a lively contest between an incumbent, a former council member and three other active candidates. In that race, 71 percent of voters used their option to provide a second choice.

These numbers suggest that voters’ choices about whether to provide their second choice are sophisticated. When more than two candidates were on the ballot, more folks used their second choices. Was one candidate a lopsided favorite in a two-person race? If so, fewer voters used their second choices. As to voter turnout, it was always expected to be low in Minneapolis in 2009, since the mayoral race was not competitive.

St. Paul’s Second Ward may be most instructive, as the same incumbent ran competitive races in 2007 and 2011, with only the latter race run under RCV. Following Jacobs’ and Miller’s logic, one would assume that this economically and racially diverse ward would have seen decreased turnout in the later RCV election. The opposite is true: Turnout improved modestly.

What RCV does is increase effective voter participation by eliminating low-turnout primaries and rolling two rounds into one election. Primary drop-off rates hit communities of color disproportionately hard; RCV diminishes this bias. If Jacobs and Miller have evidence to show that low-income voters, many of them people of color, have an especially difficult time learning how to vote under RCV, they should present it. Until then, their assumptions are just that — assumptions.

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Javier Morillo is president of SEIU Local 26 and a member of the Democratic National Committee. Richard Carlbom is former campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families and cofounder of United Strategies.

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