This year’s Minneapolis city election is RCV 3.0, the third since 2009 to allow voters to rank their preferences in multicandidate races via ranked-choice voting. In St. Paul, it’s RCV 2.0, with the mayor’s race the only one on the ballot to allow voters to elect the candidate who gets enough first-, second- and third-choice votes to attain a 50-percent-plus-one majority.
That makes RCV not quite the shiny new object of curiosity it once was, yet not so familiar that it can be mentioned without immediate explanation.
I’m not surprised that voters are still a mite foggy about RCV. It’s not that figuring out how to mark a ballot with choices one, two and three is so hard. Voters told exit pollsters in 2009 and 2013 that they’ve got that part down.
It’s what happens in counting the votes that gets complicated. Explaining how RCV ballots are tallied is a major test of journalistic prowess. Let’s just say that if your favorite candidate doesn’t seem likely to finish near the top of the field in first-choice votes, you’re well served to mark a second choice. And a third. That increases chances that the winner will be a candidate you deem somewhat acceptable, rather than one whose election makes you want to hire a moving van.
What I do find surprising in this third trot around the RCV track is how seldom the voting method is mentioned by the people who need to be ranked-choice experts — the candidates themselves.
By year three, I would have expected Minneapolis candidates to ask early and often for second-place as well as first-place votes. Instead, the web pages of the mayoral leaders make more prominent mention of lawn signs than RCV.
In an RCV election with a large field, I would have expected candidates to form teams or clusters. Several like-minded candidates would recommend each other as a second-place choice. That happened four years ago among seven candidates. I’ve seen no similar multicandidate alliance announcement this year.
“It’s happening more implicitly than explicitly,” reported Elizabeth Glidden, the Eighth Ward City Council member who shepherded RCV into the city charter a decade ago. She isn’t seeking re-election this year. That positions her as an interested but somewhat detached observer of the contests among those seeking City Hall offices in 2018.
With so many candidates on the ballot, “the candidates for mayor are absolutely going to need second- and third-place votes to win this. You can’t be a candidate in this mayor’s race and not know that,” Glidden assured. “Ranked-choice voting allows candidates to use politics in a whole new way. But I’d say there’s still some nervousness about how to use those techniques.”
Traditional campaigning in a multicandidate field involves finding one’s base of support, solidifying it with criticism of other candidates, and working intensely to get that base to the polls.
That formula needs adjustment in an RCV election. One needs to appeal beyond one’s base. But “you still have to distinguish yourself, especially if you are not the incumbent,” Glidden said.
“For candidates to take best advantage of ranked-choice voting, they’ve got to get past the implicit messages and the caution that has them just saying nice things. They’ve got to get more sophisticated about forming partnerships and coalitions,” she said. “We’re just not used to that in American politics.”
The adjustment in campaign strategies that RCV requires doesn’t come easily for political insiders. It’s one reason that RCV resistance among insiders has grown.
I would have guessed 10 years ago that by now RCV would be in use in a dozen or more jurisdictions in Minnesota, and would be under discussion for statewide use. The appeal of majority rather than plurality rule, plus the chance to tone down negative campaigning, seemed that compelling. Instead, RCV was rejected by voters in Duluth in 2015, and has been examined but not adopted in several other cities.
Last week brought a hint that the RCV bandwagon might roll again. On a 6-1 vote, the St. Louis Park City Council sent to that city’s charter commission a request that they examine a switch to RCV and report back. That may not happen until a new council is seated next year. And with Mayor Jake Spano voicing reservations, it’s not clear whether a positive recommendation from the charter commission would ultimately lead to change.
But St. Louis Park has already taken a step that ought to augur for RCV: It has eliminated its primary election. Low turnout and high cost were the reasons cited to scrap an election that this year attracted just 12 percent of eligible voters.
Make that change without RCV, and majority rule is in jeopardy in St. Louis Park. A multicandidate race can be won by a candidate who receives far fewer than 50 percent of the vote.
Last year, Americans watched the Republican Party nominate a presidential candidate who seldom scored majority votes in primary elections. Count me among the observers who doubt that Donald Trump would be president today if the Republican primaries had used RCV. And who think that alone is a pretty good argument for giving RCV a try.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.