Election Day 2017 is approaching nationwide. On Tuesday, Nov. 7, voters around the country will take part in the same civil process that elected Donald Trump as President last year. Selecting local representatives in our cities and states stands as a hallmark of federalism that shouldn’t be ignored. Cities and states are laboratories for democracy, and the test tubes are abubble once again.
One emerging experiment in the municipal governments of many is not one of policy, but of the very nature of elections themselves. In 2009, Minneapolis joined cities such as San Francisco, Memphis, and Santa Fe in a new system of “ranked-choice voting,” also known as instant-runoff voting.
What is ranked-choice voting?
Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a system in which voters choose their top number of candidates for an office instead of just one. In Minneapolis, voters choose their top three mayoral candidates. This method is different than a one-choice voting system because it means a voter’s second or third favorite candidate (or none at all) could win instead of only their top choice. Imagine voting for President in 2016 and ranking Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton and then throwing in your favorite third-party candidate as your third choice.
Ranked-choice voting is hailed by its proponents as a way to create friendlier campaigns between candidates and increase ballot access for all who want to run. However, it could be having the opposite effect in Minneapolis – one that inherently favors the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Instead of increasing ballot access, ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis has simply become a public referendum on which DFL candidate will win.
How do they get away with it?
2017 is the city’s third RCV mayoral election, but only the second that is truly contested. The first mayoral election in 2009 was dominated by mayoral incumbent and First Avenue crowd surfing favorite R.T. Rybak. However, after Rybak announced that he wouldn’t seek another term, the floodgates opened in 2013 and the water still sits stagnant.
Minneapolis’ municipal elections are technically nonpartisan, but the city allows candidates to identify a party with their name if they so choose. However, because the elections are nonpartisan, more than one candidate who identifies with a party can appear on a ballot. This rule means that even if a candidate wins their party’s endorsement in a convention, they could still be forced to run against a fellow party member in the general election.
The mayoral race is especially crucial for the DFL because so many candidates are involved. In 2013, 10 of the 35 candidates on the final ballot were DFLers. This year, the odds are even more stacked in favor of the DFL with nine of 15 candidates on the ballot in blue. The number of candidates decreased dramatically from 2013 to this year because Minneapolis increased the filing fee from $20 to $500.
However, no matter how many candidates run, the party that runs the most candidates has the best chance of winning in a ranked-choice system.
Packing the ballot box
The scheme, whether intentional or not, is similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Supreme Court-packing scheme in 1937, in which he sought to increase the number of justices on the court. Given that the Constitution does not specify the number of sitting judges, FDR knew that if he could convince Congress to increase the number while he was President, he would then be able to appoint justices of his choosing to sit in the newly found vacant seats. These judges would then inevitably favor his New Deal initiatives if they were ever challenged in the Supreme Court.
The initiative failed, but it sheds light on how politicians can use procedure to favor their policy, which is what the DFL is trying to do with RCV in its current form.
How RCV deceives voters
Yes, RCV may lead to friendly elections, but those elections will always be more friendly to the DFL. In fact, the DFL has more control of the result under RCV than under single-choice. Given that Minneapolis has a decidedly liberal populous and nine DFL mayoral candidates are representing their interests (not including left-leaning independents), the odds will forever be in their favor.
The problem is compounded by the DFL’s lack of endorsement for a candidate in both 2013 and 2017. Undecided voters don’t have an easy idea of who to vote for, which is a primary function of the branding that comes with a political party, but the DFL doesn’t care as long as they control a majority of the choices.
A voter who doesn’t want a DFL candidate to be elected mayor has to leave the DFL out of all three choices entirely; otherwise, they will inevitably cast their vote in favor of the DFL as the field winnows via instant runoffs.
Still the odds favor the DFL, even if by chance alone. This year, with nine of the 15 candidates running as DFLers, there is always more than a 50:50 chance that a voter will select a DFL candidate in each of their three choices as their ballot wanes from nine of 15 candidates to eight of 14 to seven of 13.
How can this be fixed?
There are a few ways to pass on the benefits of RCV to the public and not just the DFL. Here are three ideas:
1. The Republican Party or another third party needs to step up
Despite there being 15 choices on the ballot for Minneapolis mayor in 2017, none call themselves Republicans. The GOP (or a third party) should step up and recruit enough candidates to run three or more on the ballot with their party attached. This ballot-stuffing strategy ensures that there is at least some chance that each of a voter’s top three choices could be from the same party.
Furthermore, Republicans running in the mayoral election, even if they don’t have a favorable chance at winning, increases competition, which is another goal of RCV.
2. Make Minneapolis elections partisan
Making the elections partisan forces the parties themselves to get involved in the campaign beyond a perfunctory endorsement, which the DFL hasn’t accomplished in either of the last two elections. Forcing the party’s hand will require a rule change to ensure that a candidate is inevitably endorsed and uniformly backed in the general election.
This process will give one candidate from many parties a more significant voice, instead of many candidates from one party dominating the conversation. By allowing more parties to be involved in the discussion, the marketplace of ideas can flourish as opposed to one side controlling the parameters of acceptable discourse.
3. Go back to single-choice voting
This solution is simple – just go back to the way it was before 2009, and still largely is in municipalities across the country. This system helps the candidate with the most significant plurality of support to victory, which is a core tenant of the “first past the post” democracy we claim to hold so dear.
Admittedly, RCV can work in Minneapolis, but right now it’s only working for the DFL.
Brad Omland is a Minneapolis-based writer and radio producer. He earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of South Dakota in May 2013.