Everything you need to know about RCV (but were afraid to ask)

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2013 - 2:00 PM

We’ll soon get a good test of whether this voting method is worth the time and effort.

Tuesday’s Minneapolis election is being watched in these parts and around the country as a test of ranked-choice voting (RCV), the opportunity for voters to indicate not only their favorite candidate, but a second and third choice should No. 1 perform poorly in the first round.

It’s also a test of the civic claims Minneapolitans make about themselves. They’re highly engaged, well-informed gentlefolk — or so they gladly say. Winters that last until half-past April (this year, it was early May) have schooled them in patience. Odd-even snow emergencies have taught them to cope with confusion in public processes. Their city government features lots of layers with lots of offices to fill because they like it that way — and they love to vote.

Will the same be said of them, by them or for them after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday?

Here’s my top tip for Minneapolis voters: Allow plenty of time at the polls. Better still, spend some quality time with the sample ballot at vote.minneapolismn.gov before you vote. You and the people behind you in line will be glad you did.

It’s not that huge turnout is expected — not by presidential election standards, city officials told journalists and campaign aides at a briefing last week. Neither is the number of offices to be filled unusually high. Even with the overcrowding in the mayor’s race, the ballot consists of only the front and back of a single sheet of paper.

But you’ll need a few moments to scan the 35 names in the mayoral first-choice column to find your favorite. Then, in order to fully flex the electoral muscle that RCV affords, you must read that long list twice more, once for second choice, once for third.

Try to express all your choices in the same column? Sorry. The counting machine will spit out your ballot. You’ll be invited to go back in line and try again. (If that happens for any reason, take a deep breath and consider your city’s reputation before you sputter or stomp away. If you give up, city officials said, be assured that the perennially calm election judges will salvage and count any portion of your ballot that you didn’t spoil.)

Planning to vote for the same candidate in all three columns, hoping to do your favorite a favor? Go ahead — the machine won’t spurn your ballot. But you won’t help your choice one whit. Planning to save time by voting in the first-choice column only? Feel free. That’s a valid ballot, too.

But if you do either of those things, you will be wasting your RCV advantage — the extra measure of influence it provides in multicandidate elections. By allowing you to indicate that more than one candidate is acceptable to you, you increase the chances that one of your “acceptables” wins.

Most Minneapolis voters will also have a rankable choice to make for City Council. Then there’s the Park and Recreation Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and don’t forget the two charter amendments, which require a little reading. You see why voting on Tuesday won’t be a two-minute drill.

More patience will be required after the polls close. The mayor’s race winner won’t be known on Tuesday night. If no glitches develop, it’s quite possible that someone can throw a victory party on Wednesday night. If something goes awry with government computers (imagine that!) the wait for results will be longer.

Will voters deem RCV worth the extra time and effort? The winners and their fans will likely say yes. Whether others do will depend on how well RCV lives up to the promises that sold city voters in 2006, when they wrote it into the city charter. Here’s a refresher on that sales pitch:

• RCV will assure majority rule. That would be true if each three-choice RCV race were between three candidates. It likely would be true if the race involved just a few more. But 35? Chances are good that a lot of Minneapolis mayoral ballots will be “exhausted” well before a winner is determined. The mayoral winner’s vote count could be substantially smaller than 50 percent plus 1 of those voting on Tuesday.

The RCV advocates at FairVote Minnesota now say that their method “upholds the principle of majority rule.” But Jeanne Massey, FairVote’s executive director, is careful to add that RCV winners are those chosen by “a majority of continuing ballots.” Ballots whose first, second and third choices are out of the running don’t continue.

FairVote knows that a large number of exhausted ballots in the mayoral race undercuts one of RCV’s top selling points. It’s why FairVote urged that city voters get six choices for mayor, not three, and that the candidate filing fee be increased from the token $20 it has been since 1967. It might be more obvious to the next City Council that those are good ideas.

• RCV lifts the fear of “wasting my vote.” That claim, too, needs modification in a field this large. Pick three losers, and your ballot will be just as irrelevant as it would have been in a single-choice election in which you voted for an also-ran.

But RCV does let a voter cast a first-place choice for a less-than-leading candidate without fear of inadvertently helping a leading candidate that the voter detests. The ballot’s second- and third-choice columns can be used to steer toward one or two preferred leaders and thus away from abhorrent others.

• RCV will result in less negative campaigning. This promise has been fulfilled, the candidates say. With no clear leader in the mayoral field, chances are good that second- and third-place votes will determine the outcome. The battle to be the second choice of other candidates’ supporters has suppressed the impulse to go on the attack.

Whether that’s a good thing is open to question. Voters are likely struggling to suss out the leading candidates’ differences on issues. (Today’s OpEx is here to help.) Some Minneapolitans — and not just journalists — kvetch that so much mutual respect has failed to engage the electorate. Which leads to the last RCV promise:

• With the chance to register more choices, more citizens will participate — and special-interest influence will wane. Tuesday’s turnout will tell the tale. In 1993, the last time no incumbent was on the mayoral ballot, turnout was 45.3 percent. Miss that mark by much, and RCV critics will pounce, saying the balloting method was too confusing or too time-consuming or too boring to work.

Others will say it shows that Minneapolitans aren’t the supercitizens they claim to be. You don’t want that smear to catch on, Minneapolis? The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. That website again: vote.minneapolismn.gov.

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