Greens have worked closely with democracy activists in promoting ranked choice voting (RCV), both in its instant runoff form and as an alternative to winner-take-all in elections when electing multiple seats. International examples abound about the power of proportional representation for transforming elections and opportunities for Greens. City elections in 2013 showed just why RCV matters in the United States.
The most prominent RCV election was in Minneapolis (MN), where Green Party councilor Cam Gordon has helped win and sustain RCV for 22 city offices. Easy ballot access led to 35 mayoral candidates and an unusually wide breadth of election choices.
Had voters been restricted to backing only one candidate in one election, Minneapolis’s mayor almost certainly would have won with a low plurality of the vote. In Boston’s mayoral race, for example, the first place finisher in its preliminary election received only 18% of the vote – and while a November runoff elected a majority winner, the price was elimination of all six candidates of color before the higher turnout runoff. Instead of a vote-for-one system, however, Minneapolis has RCV.
Voters expressed not only which candidate was their favorite, but also their second-choice and third- choice candidates. Those rankings allowed a series of instant runoff elections, with the last-place finisher eliminated and their ballots added to the totals of the candidate ranked next until two candidates remained.
RCV led to the mayoral candidates competing seriously but also positively. Voters elected Betsy Hodges, who earned broad consensus support. Heavily outspent, Hodges didn’t buy a single television ad, instead focusing on direct voter contact and coalition- building.
Her inclusive outreach led to winning more than a third of first-choice rankings, a first, second or third choice ranking of more than 60% of voters, and a landslide win when matched against her better financed lead rival. Among those elected to the city council’s 13 seats by RCV are the city council’s first Latino, Somali and Hmong Cambodian members.
RCV was also used for a total of 22 offices, including five seats elected by the fair representation, multi-seat form of RCV. Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly understood and preferred RCV, according to an exit poll by Edison Research. Commentators noted that the political climate had changed from traditional “machine politics” to coalition politics, in which candidates talk to voters more about issues and policy. A local professor called the 2013 mayoral election a “game changer.”
RCV IN ST. PAUL AND CAMBRIDGE
Similarly encouraging stories came from other cities using RCV. In neighboring St. Paul, incumbent mayor Chris Coleman easily defeated three challengers, with RCV allowing that election to take place in one round instead of two. A highly competitive special election led to the election of the city council’s first Hmong American.
Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly understood and preferred RCV, according to an exit poll by Edison Research. The bigger story [from Takoma Park] was it becoming the nation’s first city to extend voting rights to residents after they turn 16. Overseas voters to be able to vote in the runoff. Louisiana instead allows those voters to complete a RCV ballot before the first round. That way, their ballots can count in the runoff for whichever of their highest ranked candidates remains.
Alabama also held a special congressional election, with RCV ballots for overseas and military voters in the primary runoff. With a crowded field of competitors for the Republican nomination, a runoff election was a certainty – and again overseas voters would not have enough time to receive and return new ballots for the runoff. Because federal law requires that such voters not be disenfranchised, a federal court ordered that Alabama allow them to cast an RCV ballot. The expansion of RCV is especially notable at a time when gridlock and dysfunction in Congress have made cynicism about the American democratic process increasingly pervasive. Many recent commentaries have focused on how RCV can increase opportunities for racial minorities and heal our partisan, ideological divide, with FairVote alone having pieces in the Washington Post, Newsday, San Jose Mercury News, Cleveland Plain Dealer and more than a dozen other publications.
THIS YEAR’S PROSPECTS
This year offers more important RCV elections in four California cities and cities like Takoma Park and Telluride (CO). More than 60 colleges and universities use RCV for student elections, and the Oscars use its multi-seat form to nominate nearly all categories and the one-winner form to choose best picture.
Maine, New York City and Nebraska are among major cities and states with vibrant efforts to move to RCV, and we expect to see congressional legislation to establish RCV in multi-seat House seats in all states with at least two seats. If you have questions about bringing RCV to your community, be sure to contact our team at FairVote.
Instructively, two Hmong Americans were able to run without concern of splitting the vote—and the campaign was civil enough that the winner ultimately hired the African American candidate who finished second to work on his council staff. Greens should pay particular attention to lessons in multi-seat RCV elections for nine city council seats and six school committee seats in Cambridge (MA).
Candidates run at-large, and the share of vote necessary to win is just over 10% in council elections and about 14.5% for school committee seats, with more than 95% of voters typically ranking at least one winner among their top three choices. Despite comprising less than 20% of the city’s population, African American candidates have won near- continuous representation on the council since the 1950’s, and today hold four city council and school committee seats. This year the council race resulted in four first-time winners, including the council’s first Latino member and 29-year-old Arab American Muslim, Nadeem Mazen. A leader in the Occupy Boston movement and a first-time candidate, Mazen effectively worked with other candidates on the change-oriented “Clean Slate” that ultimately displaced two incumbents. But a simulation of winner-take-all voting indicates Mazen, his fellow Clean slate winner Dennis Carlone and Latino winner Dennis Benzan needed RCV to win.
FIRST EVER VOTING RIGHTS FOR 16-YEAR OLDS IN TAKOMA PARK!
Takoma Park (MD), my hometown, also elected its city offices with RCV, but races were lopsided. The bigger story was it becoming the nation’s first city to extend voting rights to residents after they turn 16, a practice already done in national elections in several countries, including Argentina, Austria, and Brazil. Turnout of eligible voters who were 16 and 17 was nearly twice as high as the turnout rate of older residents.
RCV IN LOUISIANA AND ALABAMA
Last fall there were two special elections for U.S. Congress in which RCV ballots played a role, including a congressional election in Louisiana. In most Louisiana elections, all candidates run against each other in the first round. If no candidate earns a majority, there is a runoff election between the top two candidates a few weeks later -with this year’s runoff between two Republicans. However, the time between voting rounds is too short for many military and Many recent commentaries have focused on how RCV can increase opportunities for racial minorities and heal our partisan, ideological divide.
ROB RICHIE is Executive Director of FairVote (www.fairvote.org)