Majority Rule?

It was two years ago this week that we moved to Minneapolis.  We had much to look forward to – lakes, bike paths, Juicy Lucys – but we didn’t know that list also included Election Day.  Let me explain.

In most elections in the US, the winner is the person who gets the most votes.  Now, many people are aware that occasionally in our history – five times to be exact, including twice in the past 5 elections – someone has become president while losing the popular vote but winning a majority of the electoral college.  But did you know that in 19 of the 58 presidential elections since the passage of the 12th amendment, the winner did not get a majority of the popular votes?  That is, fully 1/3 of our presidents have been elected by fewer than half of the voters.  Now, this doesn’t have to mean a bad result – Abraham Lincoln received less than 40% of the total votes, for example.  But it does make you wonder.  In a system where you only need to receive one more vote than the next person (i.e., a plurality as opposed to a majority), the winner may simply be the least bad option.

To prevent this, many other countries, and a number of jurisdictions in the US, use a runoff system.  If no one gets a majority of the votes in one cycle, then the top two vote getters compete in a runoff.  This ensures that the ultimate winner will have attracted at least some level of support from a majority of the voters.  But it has problems.  It is expensive and inefficient to have two different elections.  Also, those voters whose preferred candidate was eliminated in the first round may not bother to show up for the runoff, so the winner may not have a majority among all the voters who participated.

An increasingly popular approach to deal with this is what was formerly known as “instant runoff voting,” now most often referred to as “ranked choice voting.”  At election time, voters list several choices (typically first, second, and third).  All the first choice votes are counted, and if one candidate has a majority, the election is over.  If not, then there is a virtual runoff: the lowest vote getter is eliminated, and her/his second choice votes are counted.  This continues until someone has a majority of the votes and is declared the winner.

Minneapolis and St. Paul both use this system for local elections.  Experience here and in other locations both in the US and abroad have shown some important advantages of RCV:

  • Higher voter turnout
  • Lower cost (no need for a separate runoff election)
  • Less negative campaigning. After all, candidates have to appeal to voters who may not want them as their first choice to at least list them second or third. I am less likely to rank you as one of my options if you are busy slinging mud at my preferred candidate (and indirectly at me).
  • Broader range of candidates and voices. In a plurality system, when there are more than two candidates voting is often defensive, aimed at keeping the candidate you perceive as the worst from winning. Third party or lesser known candidates are thus discouraged from even running lest they serve as a “spoiler”.
  • Less polarization and more focus on issues. The winner in RCV has to end up with a majority of votes. The only way to attract second and third choice rankings is to focus on the issues that are important to the voters, convincing them that even though they may rank another candidate first, they are comfortable with your stand on issues that are important to them. Similarly, extreme candidates who appeal to only a minority of voters cannot win under this system (even if they can get a plurality of first choice votes).

My first hand experience bears this out. If we ignore the Packer-Viking thing, Wisconsin and Minnesota are actually quite similar politically and culturally. But the municipal elections here in 2017 were nothing like the hyper-polarized, corrosive electoral environment I experienced in Milwaukee just the year before. Ranked choice voting produced an issues-oriented, civil campaign and high-turnout election that was refreshing and began to counter my growing cynicism about our democracy. FairVote MN is a non-partisan organization pushing for wider use of RCV in the state, an effort I am supporting enthusiastically, because I appreciate the advantages of RCV as a citizen, as a business leader, and as a pediatrician and advocate for kids.

How so? In short, I have seen how RCV encourages civic engagement. And that is a good thing. A 2013 report from National Conference on Citizenship (funded by the non-partisan Knight Foundation) summarized studies showing links between civic engagement on the one hand and economic resilience on the other, including lower unemployment and less adverse economic impact during the Great Recession, as well links between civic engagement and other measures of community health such as public school performance, net in-migration of residents, and infrastructure investment. Civic engagement and voter participation are good for democracy and good for the community. And that means it’s good for kids.

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