How ranked choice voting can make democracy work better in Minnesota | Opinion

Teaj Fox dances on stilts to raise people's spirits as Democracy Defenders through Nonviolent Peaceforce watch over Powderhorn Park's voting center Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minnesota Legislature should give voters a greater choice and encourage more broad-based coalition building by approving statewide ranked choice voting. It’s a simple tweak to our elections that can empower voters and strengthen democracy. 

What is ranked choice? 

In typical voting, whoever gets the most votes wins. That seems pretty obvious. But it can result in a winner taking power with only a small sliver of support. That can happen whenever you have more than two candidates. 

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. So instead of voting for one candidate and being done, you can have a second choice (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.). When the votes are tallied, if a candidate gets more than 50%, they win. But if no one gets more than 50%, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and votes for that candidate are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choice. Then if a candidate gets to 50%, they win. If not, more reallocation to second choices. 

Getting more votes than other candidates isn’t enough. You need a majority to win.

Why legislators should support it 

The DFL and GOP likely don’t want ranked choice voting because it will help third parties. But third parties don’t need that much help — they’re already making a difference. It’s been 20 years, but Minnesota is a prime example of third party success. And while Jesse Ventura may be an outlier, third parties are already having a tremendous impact on the outcome of our elections. 

Just look at the Minnesota governor’s race in four straight elections from 1998 to 2010 when no winner received a majority. (And in 2014 Mark Dayton just barely got there with 50.07%.) In the 2020 election, third party candidates pulled in more votes than the margin of victory in the Senate race, two Congressional races and three state legislative races. It arguably lost Democrats the 1st Congressional District, state Senate District 27, and state House District 55A. In 2016, a third-party candidate likely cost Democrats the 2nd Congressional District. 

Although Republicans have allegedly recruited third-party candidates to help beat Democrats, this problem goes both ways. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by only 1.5%, while the Libertarian Party received 3.8% and the Independence Party got 1.8%, both likely pulling from Republicans. In 2010, Tom Horner’s Independence Party run likely cost Republican Tom Emmer a victory. He lost by less than half a point to Dayton, while Horner received nearly 12% of the vote.

It’s impossible to say if third-party candidates are actually pulling votes from Democrats or Republicans. Third-party supporters like to say they’re attracting people who otherwise wouldn’t vote. 

But in close elections, is that really something Democrats and Republicans want to gamble on? Why take the risk when ranked choice voting offers an easy solution? 

Empower voters 

Aside from helping the major parties avoid close losses, legislators should support ranked choice voting because it empowers voters. It eliminates the stigma that voting for a third party is a wasted vote. It also gives voters more choices and more say in the outcome. Imagine how much easier presidential primaries would be if you could have a second (and third and fourth) choice among the 15 Democrats in 2020 or the dozen Republicans in 2016? 

Let’s do politics better 

Politics isn’t exactly popular right now. We love to hate each other, and that kind of division isn’t good for democracy long term. Requiring majority support forces candidates to build coalitions and bring people together. We could use some of that right now. 

Candidates in a ranked choice system would also want to earn second and third choice votes, and that often discourages negative campaigning. 

How do we get there 

Switching to statewide ranked choice voting will require some work. There will be lots of education required to help voters understand the changes. We’ll also need software and system upgrades to make sure our election system can handle it. 

But we’ve seen it work in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Maine started using it in 2018. It’s possible to make the switch, and doing it statewide creates a consistent and fair system. 

Ranked choice voting will make politics better because it requires earning broad support, not just the biggest small fraction. It will break up the false choice of the two-party system, while keeping politicians honest and empowering voters.