Redefining what constitutes an electoral majority still has resulted in pluralities in half of Ranked Choice Voting races in Minnesota

Over the last two decades, several municipalities across the country (and a few states) have adopted Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) – a system that will be utilized on Tuesday in a handful of metro cities in Minnesota.

One of the stated selling points of Ranked Choice Voting in Minnesota is that it is a corrective measure for the purported deleterious effects of plurality-winning elected officials on our Democracy.

To this day, FairVote Minnesota – the leading advocate of Ranked Choice Voting in the state – still maintains on its website home page that the root cause of divisiveness and polarization in Minnesota and the country is an “antiquated plurality voting method.”

FairVote believes that a system that permits plurality winners:

“(L)imits voter choice, creates “spoiler” candidates, fuels negative campaigns, discourages candidates with diverse backgrounds and perspectives from running, and frequently elects winners opposed by a majority of voters.”

Ranked choice voting has been in effect in Minneapolis since 2009, in St. Paul since 2013, and in St. Louis Park since 2019.

The RCV system will be implemented in two other Twin Cities suburbs this year – narrowly passing in 2020 in Bloomington (with 51.2 percent) and more comfortably in Minnetonka (with 54.7 percent).

Dozens of RCV elections in Minnesota have already been conducted heading into Tuesday’s contests. But has RCV eliminated plurality winners?

Smart Politics examined the results of the two-dozen single-seat elections in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Louis Park in which no candidate received a majority of the vote after calculating first choice preferences. However, despite triggering the ranked choice voting process, half of these 24 contests still resulted in a plurality winner.

Plurality winners can result in RCV contests due in part to ‘exhausted’ ballots – those cast by voters who choose (or are not aware of their ability) to rank the full number of candidates for which they are allowed (up to six choices in Bloomington and St. Paul and up to three choices in Minneapolis, Minnetonka, and St. Louis Park).

From 2009 through 2020, there were 81 general and special elections for single-seat offices in Minneapolis (mayor, city council member, park and recreation board district commissioner), St. Paul (mayor, city council), and St. Louis Park (mayor, city council).

In 57 of these elections (70.4 percent), the RCV tabulation process never came into play because one candidate had enough first-place votes to meet the threshold for an outright majority.

In the remaining 24 contests, a full dozen victors still emerged as a plurality winner – in nine of 19 RCV-triggered elections in Minneapolis and in three of four in St. Paul.

Both RCV mayoral contests were won with a plurality:

  • 2013, Minneapolis: Betsy Hodges (48.95 percent)
  • 2017, Minneapolis: Jacob Frey (44.69 percent)

Plus eight of 17 city council elections:

  • 2013, Minneapolis (Ward 9): Alondra Cano (47.55 percent)
  • 2013, Minneapolis (Ward 13): Linea Palmisano (48.37 percent)
  • 2013, St. Paul (Ward 1, special): Dai Thao (41.33 percent)
  • 2015, St. Paul (Ward 2): Rebecca Noecker (48.52 percent)
  • 2017, Minneapolis (Ward 1): Kevin Reich (49.19 percent)
  • 2017, Minneapolis (Ward 4): Phillipe Cunningham (49.50 percent)
  • 2019, St. Paul (Ward 6): Nelsie Yang (44.34 percent)
  • 2020, Minneapolis (Ward 6, special): Jamal Osman (36.08 percent)

And two of five (non at-large) elections to the Park and Recreation Board:

  • 2009, Minneapolis (District 5): Carol Kummer (46.13 percent)
  • 2017, Minneapolis (District 6): Brad Bourn (47.52 percent)

It should also be noted that of the 30 percent of elections that triggered RCV, nearly all were won by the candidate who had the most first-place votes in the first instance.

Of the 24 RCV races, just two saw a candidate with the most first-place votes ultimately lose during the RCV process:

  • 2017, Minneapolis City Council (Ward 3): Ginger Jentzen lost to Steve Fletcher
  • 2017, Minneapolis City Council (Ward 4): Incumbent Barb Johnson was defeated by Phillipe Cunningham

In other words, in just two of the 81 municipal elections (2.5 percent) held for single-seat offices across these three municipalities did RCV alter the outcome of who would have been victorious had RCV never been adopted. [Provided, of course, the same candidates would have run for office and voters select their highest preference as their first choice in the RCV system].

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  1. Flickertail-Pembina on November 2, 2021 at 7:00 am

    (Exhausted ballots): 1) Unaware of the option, or 2) aware of the ability but choose NOT TO rank the fullest number for which…(!?)

    In Australia, at least, ALL the valid votes with preferences are tabulated – even if one candidate garners an outright majority on the first (“primary”) vote. Thus, the winning candidate and the first runner-up both would have larger total (two-way “preferred”) votes in practically all contests.

    If the ‘Commonwealth of Virginia’ has such an electoral system today at the statewide level, “Terry” McAuliffe might be (somewhat) more likely to win his gubernatorial re-election bid – provided a sufficient number of those casting their vote for the nominee of the Liberation Party vote for the D nominee as their second preferred choice (contrary to myth, such a system in effect for 2013 would still have likely resulted in the McAuliffe winning against “Ken” Cuccinelli, for most of those who voted for the Libertarian nominee, per exit polls, would have chosen the Democrat as their second choice for governor).

  2. Adam Masiarek on November 3, 2021 at 8:23 am

    Center Squeeze and Vote Splitting
    Election Example – say we have the following voter preferences:

    % of voters Their ranking
    35% conservative > centrist > liberal
    33% liberal > centrist > conservative
    22% centrist > liberal > conservative
    10% centrist > conservative > liberal

    [E.g. the first row says that 35% of the voters prefer the conservative, over the centrist, over the liberal.]

    Now whom should we elect? Which candidate best represents the will of these voters? Note that the centrist is preferred to the conservative by a huge 65% majority (the 2nd and 3rd rows). And the centrist is preferred to the liberal by an even bigger 67% majority (the 1st and 3rd rows). It seems clear that the centrist is by far the most broadly appealing candidate.

    If we use Instant Runoff Voting (RCV/IRV), the centrist is eliminated first, and then the liberal defeats the conservative, 55% to 45%. With an ordinary delayed runoff, the conservative and liberal would be pitted head-to-head in a second election, where we would expect the same result (unless a significant number of voters change their minds between the first and second election).

    But either way, the centrist doesn’t win. This is called the “center squeeze” effect, because the broadly appealing centrist is squeezed from both sides by candidates who absorb most of the support of the two main sides of the political spectrum. The diagram below illustrates the effect.

    STAR Voting, Approval Voting and Score/Range Voting tends to elect beats-all winners. This is because many of the liberals would also support the centrist, in order to prevent the conservative from winning. And many of the conservatives would support the centrist in order to prevent the liberal from winning.

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