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Professor's view: Ranked-choice voting promotes democracy and saves money

Ranked-choice voting is an effective and successful voting mechanism that promotes voter choice and democracy.

Contrary to critics such as the writer of the March 8 letter, “Ranked-choice voting has track record of failure,” cities across the country and around the world, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, have had tremendous success with ranked-choice voting. They’ve found it a superior voting system compared to the winner-take-all process used in Duluth.

In my new book, “Election Law and Democratic Theory,” I examine ranked-choice voting as a voting mechanism. In addition, I was asked by the city of Minneapolis in 2009 to evaluate and prepare a report on its implementation of ranked-choice voting. What do we know about ranked-choice voting?

First, no voting system is perfect. The current system Duluth and other communities use suffers from many defects.

Winner-take-all discourages citizens from voting for a third-party candidate who might be their first choice but who is otherwise viewed as not be able to win and therefore seen as a spoiler or a wasted vote. By that, if I vote for my first choice it might contribute to the election of my least-desired candidate. Ranked-choice voting takes away the fear of voting for a spoiler, allowing one instead to vote for a first choice and then rank other candidates in terms of preference. Thus, not only does ranked-choice voting create incentives for voters to select alternative candidates, it also bodes the potential to break the monopoly the two major parties have in politics.

Second, ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for primaries. The writer of the March 8 letter was identified as a mathematician, but he needs to do the math. He claimed ranked-choice voting was expensive — but he neglected to consider that ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for political primaries, thereby producing substantial savings to communities.

He also should consider a different set of numbers. In primaries, voter turnout is quite small and only a handful of voters select the candidates who appear on general-election ballots. Since ranked-choice voting eliminates primaries, more voters ultimately vote on the candidates of their choice in general elections. Thus, ranked-choice voting saves money by eliminating a primary, and it gives more voters a chance to vote for their first choices.

Third, the letter writer suggested ranked-choice voting suffers from a vote-splitting problem. This is the problem often referred to as nonmonotonicity. Critics chart out mathematically possible situations where they think this problem dooms ranked-choice voting, but the reality is their projected occurrences are more hypothetical than real. Moreover, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in 2009, when upholding the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis, largely rejected such claims of critics, finding there was no splitting of votes, double-counting of votes or any violation of the “one-person, one-vote” standard. Even if ranked-choice voting could be shown to be nonmonotonic, such an objection would not render it unconstitutional. Thus, criticisms like that made in the letter either were rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court or deemed irrelevant.

The experience of Minneapolis and elsewhere in using ranked-choice voting is far more positive that critics imply. Surveys show Minneapolis residents liked ranked-choice voting and felt it gave them more ballot choices. Minneapolis saved money by not running a primary; and in many ways, one can argue that the election of several new faces to its City Council was enhanced by ranked-choice voting.

Moreover, there was no evidence ranked-choice voting discriminated against specific voters, and nowhere has ranked-choice voting produced the perverse results of low vote-getting candidates leaping over popular ones to win.

Yes, Minneapolis did experience some problems this past election with 35 mayoral candidates, but that was more a consequence of bad ballot-access laws than something caused by ranked-choice voting.   

Ranked-choice voting offers voters a powerful tool to expand their electoral choices, thereby enhancing democracy and strengthening the ability of a government such as Duluth’s to better represent the will of the people.

David Schultz is a professor in the Department of Political Science in the School of Law at Hamline University in St. Paul. He also is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education at Hamline.

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