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Could ranked choice voting come to the North Country?

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/20/19

REGIONAL— Advocates of ranked-choice voting in elections made their case last week in both Ely and Tower that the innovative voting method could empower voters and help to reduce the increasing …

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Could ranked choice voting come to the North Country?

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REGIONAL— Advocates of ranked-choice voting in elections made their case last week in both Ely and Tower that the innovative voting method could empower voters and help to reduce the increasing toxicity of politics in the U.S.
The voting method, under which voters can rank their choices on the ballot, rather than simply select one candidate, has gained increasing attention nationally as more cities, including recently New York City, have adopted ranked-choice voting, or RCV, for their municipal elections. Here in Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul now use RCV for local elections, and other charter cities in the state are currently considering the option.
“RCV is a method of voting that allows, or requires, that every elected official be elected with a majority,” said Maureen Reed, a former medical doctor and University of Minnesota regent who is assisting FairVote Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for the adoption of RCV. Reed spoke in Ely last Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Tuesday Group luncheon and during the Tower City Council meeting later that evening. She was joined by Liz Johnson, deputy executive director of FairVote Minnesota.
Under an RCV election, voters have the ability to state their preferences by ranking the candidates. “Let’s say you have three people running for mayor,” said Reed. “One gets 42 percent, one gets 40 percent, and the third candidate ends up with 18 percent. All of the voters who voted first for the lowest-ranking candidate would have their votes reassigned to their second choice.” Once that happens, one of the other candidates would end up with a majority of the vote and win the election. The process of reassigning the second-choice votes might have been cumbersome in the past, but new computer software available today makes those calculations within a matter of milliseconds, said Reed.
RCV provides a number of advantages, according to Reed. For one, the process eliminates the need for a primary election, which typically narrows the field to two candidates. That not only saves communities the cost of running a primary, it ensures that the decisions that voters will have in the general election aren’t limited by the relatively small number of voters who typically turn out in primaries.
It also means that whoever is ultimately elected has support from a majority of the electorate. Under more conventional voting systems, candidates in a three-way race could win with less than 40 percent of the vote.
The switch to RCV can bring significant change to campaigns, for both candidates and voters.
As a candidate, I can no longer count on my narrow base of support to win in a crowded field,” said Reed. “I have to think about how to be the second choice of a lot of voters as well. That means you don’t pass by the house that already has your opponent’s sign. That means you will engage in conversation with more people, and you won’t trash their first choice (who might be an opponent) or you might not be their second choice. It means you spend a lot more time talking about the issues.” The focus on issues, rather than personalities, can help to reduce political polarization, which is often harmful to communities, said Reed.
For voters, RCV offers the chance to vote out of conviction rather than fear. “As a voter, I’m empowered to vote on what I really think.”
RCV ends the spoiler factor, according to Reed, since people can vote for a candidate they truly like the most without fearing that in doing so, they will elect the person they like least.
“In studies that have been done, voters love it,” said Reed. “No city has ever rescinded RCV after adopting it,” she added.
In Minnesota, most cities are not currently allowed to use RCV, because the Legislature has, so far, been reluctant to authorize the voting method for what are known as “statutory cities.”
But some cities, like Tower and Ely, are established by charter, and those cities can adopt RCV, which is one reason that Reed and Johnson were visiting Ely and Tower last week.
Tower Mayor Orlyn Kringstad, a longtime friend of Reed’s, said that the Tower City Council might take up the issue for consideration in 2020. But Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said he wasn’t sure that the concept would provide much value in Ely. “It’s hard to get people to run in the first place,” he said, noting that he has run unopposed in the past. “I don’t know that ranked choice voting would help with that,” he said.
While Reed touted the benefits of RCV, she also addressed some of the criticisms of the voting method. “Some contend that voters won’t understand it,” said Reed. “But that’s a fallacy. Study after study shows that voters have no trouble with it.”
While some have questioned the constitutionality of RCV, Reed said the Minnesota Supreme Court has already upheld the practice as consistent with the state’s constitution.
While RCV represents change from conventional voting, Reed said it’s change for the better than could help to reduce cynicism among the electorate. “Our younger generation is horrified by the bitter and vitriolic language that they hear at all levels of our political process these days,” said Reed. “Voters of tomorrow need to see a future in our democracy, RCV is one way to move toward a more centered place,” she said.

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