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Guest Post: The Role of Ranked Choice Voting in 2013

By Rob Richie / 2013 December 19th

(This post was co-authored by Drew Spencer, Staff Attorney for FairVote)

If you followed the local elections that took place in 2013, you probably heard stories about ranked choice voting. There were excellent new examples of how it works in practice and a wave of positive national press, including a Governing magazine news story on the impact of ranked choice voting on civility in elections and a Governing commentary by former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Kesling explaining its value for electing winner with higher voter turnout.

The most prominent stories came from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where voters had an unusually wide breadth of election choices for the open mayor’s seat. Current law requires candidates to pay a filing fee of only $20, which led to 35 candidates appearing on the ballot. Had voters been restricted to voting by indicating only a single favorite candidate in a single round of voting, Minneapolis’s mayor almost certainly would have won with a low plurality of the vote. In this year’s mayoral race in Boston, for example, the first place finisher in the preliminary election received only 18% of the vote. While a November runoff election did produce a majority winner, it came at the price of knocking out all candidates of color before the higher turnout general election.

Instead of a choose-only-one election system, however, Minneapolis uses ranked choice voting. Voters were able to express not only which candidate was their favorite, but also which second-choice and third-choice candidates they preferred over the remaining candidates. Those rankings were used to conduct a series of instant runoff elections, with the last-place finisher eliminated and their ballots added to the totals of the candidate ranked next until two candidates remained.

Ranked choice voting led to Minneapolis’ mayoral candidates competing seriously but also positively. Voters ultimately elected Betsy Hodges, a candidate who earned broad consensus support. Heavily outspent, Hodges skipped spending money on television ads in favor of grassroots campaigning. She broke from the field by earning more than a third of first-choice rankings and was the first, second or third choice of more than 60% of the voters—and was a landslide winner in the final instant runoff with her better financed rival.

Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly understood and preferred ranked choice voting, according to an exit poll by Edison Research and analysis of the election by FairVote Minnesota. Minneapolis school board member Kim Ellison was among many expressing excitement and pride in the outcome even when their first-choice candidate did not win. In Minneapolis, commentators noted that the political climate had changed from traditional “machine politics” to coalition politics, in which candidates talk to voters more about issues and policy. A local professor called the 2013 mayoral election a “game changer.” In video interviews, voters shed light on how positively ranked choice voting was viewed.

Among those elected to the city council’s 13 seats by ranked choice voting are the city council’s first Latino, Somali and Hmong Cambodian members. Ranked choice voting was also used for eight additional offices, including five seats elected by the fair representation, multi-seat form of ranked choice voting.

Similarly encouraging stories have come out of the other cities using ranked choice voting this year. In St. Paul (MN), incumbent mayor Chris Coleman easily defeated three challengers, with ranked choice voting allowing that election to take place in one round instead of two. As highly competitive special election led to the election of the first Hmong American to its city council. Instructively, two Hmong Americans were able to run without concern of splitting the vote—and the campaign was civil enough that the winner ultimately hired an African American candidate who finished a close second to work on his council staff.

FairVote’s Andrew Douglas wrote of the positive effects that the fair representation multi-seat ranked choice voting method had in this year’s city elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts for nine city council seats and six school committee seats. The Cambridge election resulted in four first-time winners including the council’s first Latino member and a 29-year-old Arab American. Despite comprising less than 20% of the city’s population, African American candidates have had continuous representation on the council since the 1950’s, and won two of six school committee seats. More than 95% of voters typically rank at least one winning candidate as one of their top three choices and like-minded voters can elect a candidate with 10% of the vote.

Takoma Park (MD),- where FairVote is headquartered, also elected its city offices with ranked choice voting, but races were lopsided. The bigger story was it becoming the first city in the nation to extend voting rights to residents after they turn 16, a practice already done in national elections in several countries, including Austria, and Brazil. Turnout of eligible voters who were 16 and 17 was nearly twice as high as the the turnout rate of residents 18 and older.

This fall there were two special elections for U.S. Congress in which ranked choice voting played a role. Louisiana held a special election to fill a vacancy in its fifth congressional district on November 16th. In Louisiana state and federal elections, all candidates run against each other in the first round; If no candidate earns a majority, there is a runoff election between the top two candidates a few weeks later - with this year’s runoff between two Republicans. However, the time between rounds of voting is too short for many military and overseas voters to be able to receive and return their runoff ballots. To allow those voters to fully participate, Louisiana instead allows them to complete a ranked choice ballot before the first round takes place. That way, their ballots can count in the runoff for whichever of their highest ranked candidates remains.

Alabama also held a special election for Congress this fall with ranked choice ballots for overseas and military voters. There, the partisan primary elections include a runoff election if no candidate receives a majority of votes. With a crowded field of competitors for the Republican nomination, a runoff election was expected - and again overseas voters would not have enough time to receive and return new ballots for the primary runoff. Because federal law requires that such voters not be disenfranchised, a federal court ordered that Alabama allow them to use a ranked choice ballot when voting in the Republican primary - a remedy Alabama itself proposed as a means to allow it to keep a tight schedule for its multiple rounds of elections.

FairVote has written about the use of ranked choice voting for overseas and military voters before. It’s a simple reform that helps make runoff elections work better while respecting the votes of absentee voters, and it’s very popular with both voters and election administrators. That’s why, when the Presidential Voting Commission began its hearings to discuss issues with access to the polls, we submitted testimony advocating for the widespread adoption of this increasingly common reform.

The expansion of uses of ranked choice voting is an especially notable development at a time when gridlock and dysfunction in Congress have made cynicism about the American democratic process increasingly pervasive. Strong commentaries this year focused on how ranked choice voting can increase opportunities for racial minorities and heal our partisan, ideological divide, with FairVote having a series of our its similar commentaries in recent weeks in the Washington Post, Newsday, San Jose Mercury News, Cleveland Plain Dealer and more than a dozen other publications.

Next year offers more important ranked choice voting elections, including those in four California cities that use ranked choice voting. More than 60 colleges and universities now use it for student elections, and the Oscars use the multiseat form to nominate nearly all categories and the one-winner form to choose best picture. More states and cities are starting to consider ranked choice voting with a growing awareness that voting equipment vendors are making the reform easier to implement it. If you have questions about bringing ranked choice voting to your community, be sure to contact our team at FairVote.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote.

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