Ranked Choice Voting Talking Points Scorecard
by Tony Petrangelo
Nov 4, 2013, 8:00 AM

The Ranked Choice Voting Spin Cycle

A few weeks back I wrote the following:

And when the number one talking point for a thing is factually incorrect, it makes me wonder about the rest of the talking points.

The thing to which I was referring, if the title of this post hasn’t yet given it away, is Ranked Choice Voting. The talking points to which I was referring are the talking points supplied by the number one peddler of Ranked Choice Voting in Minnesota, FairVoteMN.

Those talking points, presented below in a list format and then discussed individually:

All of which sounds like good stuff. Eliminating waste and solving problems are things people like, and what do you know, those are things that Ranked Choice Voting will do. Super.

What you will notice though, as you look at these talking points for longer than a glance is that they offer no specificity (they’re talking points after all). The point of this post is to ascertain what is meant by these talking points and decide whether they are in fact real things, or just spin.

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #1

Upholds the principle of majority rule

This is not true. I have already gone into great detail about this so if you’re curious you can refer to this, this, this, and this.

As a commentor to this site said,

RCV is simply “plurality with lipstick”.

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #2

Eliminates “wasted” votes

I guess this one depends on what one means by wasted votes. Typically, wasting your vote means voting for a candidate who has no chance of winning. Ranked Choice Voting does in fact solve this particular problem in that you can vote for the candidate who has no chance and you can vote for a candidate who has a chance. Viola, no more wasted vote.

Except that in a Ranked Choice Voting system your vote can become exhausted, and exhausted is really just another way of saying wasted.

As votes are counted, the candidate with the least amount of first-choice votes gets eliminated in each round. Meaning if the three candidates you ranked all get eliminated before the final round of counting, your vote didn’t count in the final round. It was, for lack of a better word, a wasted vote.

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #3

Solves the “spoiler” problem and gives voters more choice

This is a thing that Ranked Choice Voting does in fact do. The “spoiler” problem, as I view it, is different from the “wasted vote” problem (they’re different talking points after all!) in that the spoiler problem refers not to a candidate who has no chance, but rather a candidate who is more likely to throw the election to the non-front-runner than to win the election themselves.

A great example of this in somewhat recent Minnesota politics would be the 2002 Gubernatorial candidacy of Tim Penny, who was always more likely to cause a Tim Pawlenty victory, than he was to win the race himself.

Ranked Choice Voting allows candidates like Tim Penny to run without feeling like they’re spoiling the race, and it allows people to vote for candidates like Tim Penny without feeling like they’re spoiling the race. This is how Ranked Choice Voting gets rid of the spoiler problem and is one actual advantage that it has over a classic election.

Of course Ranked Choice Voting doesn’t solve the problem of the existence of people like Tim Penny or the existence of people who would vote for someone like Tim Penny, but it’s not really meant to.

Verdict: Valid Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #4

Increases voter participation

I take this to mean “increases voter turnout.” They don’t say turnout, I suspect because then if there isn’t increased voter turnout they can turn around and say that more voters were participating in other ways. Or something.

But to me, this means that Ranked Choice Voting will result more voters going to the polls and casting ballots. As you could probably guess, that’s not always the case, it certainly wasn’t in San Francisco in 2011:

John Arntz, director of the Elections Department, said that by the time all election results are certified, the turnout will be about 40 percent of registered voters. That’s the lowest percentage in a competitive mayor’s race since at least 1975.

You don’t have to go all the way to the west coast though, take a look at Minneapolis itself, in 2005 voter turnout was 30% and in 2009 (the first year of Ranked Choice Voting) it went all the way up to 20%. Did I say up? I meant down. It went all the way down to 20%. Now that might be a bit of an unfair comparison, 2005 featured a much more competitive Mayor’s race than did 2009.

So here’s a table of past Minneapolis general elections turnout:

Year Turnout
1993 45%
1997 46%
2001 41%
2005 30%
2009 20%

Again, 2009 featured a lack of any interesting races really, so this comparison isn’t apples to apples. But it was also the first year of Ranked Choice Voting, you would think that if it was a thing people were excited to try out more of them would have showed up to try it out.

These two data points clearly call the validity of this talking point into question.

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #5

Opens the political process to new voices

Voices like this one? Or this one?

Regardless of how one feels about the number and quality of the candidates in the Minneapolis Mayor’s race, it would be hard for anyone to argue that they don’t represent “new voices.” When you have a race with 35 candidates, two of whom are Pirates, the process has clearly been opened up to new voices.

Verdict: Valid Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #6

Promotes more diverse representation

To the degree that Ranked Choice Voting brings new political voices into the process, it is inevitable that some of those new voices will go on to actually win elections and assume office. There’s another side to this coin though, it’s not just easier for new voices to become part of the process, but it’s easier for old voices as well.

Without a primary to winnow down the candidates, it’s super easy for a single dominant party (in this case the DFL) to overwhelm the field with multiple candidates to drown out that diversity. And we’re seeing that very thing happen in the Mayor’s race, where there will be ten candidates running with the DFL ballot line.

Additionally, to the degree that this talking point is true, it’s as a result of the previous talking point, of allowing more voices into the process. So even if “Promoting more diverse representation” is a thing Ranked Choice Voting does, it shouldn’t be getting it’s own talking point. Since the two things go hand in hand, the previous talking point should be something like; “Opens the political process to new voices and promotes more diverse representation.”

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #7

Reduces negative campaigning and promotes civil, issue oriented campaigns

Back to San Francisco:

And in the campaign itself, challengers pounded away at acting Mayor Ed Lee. They accused him of promoting voter fraud in Chinatown, lying when he promised not to run and serving as a stooge for former Mayor Willie Brown.

Because those are the things being talked about in a civil, issue oriented campaign.

How about here in Minneapolis:

Andrew is taking heat for distributing an intentionally misleading mailer and for possibly being involved with a mysterious Twitter account that does little besides attack Betsy Hodges. Hodges received the Star Tribune’s endorsement over the weekend and seems to be the biggest threat to Andrew’s bid to succeed R.T. Rybak.

Misleading mailers and twitter attack accounts! Clearly the evidence of an immensely civil and issue oriented campaign.

How about this one:

On Friday, November 1st, a person, not a lawyer, filed a pro se complaint in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It was made against Mark Andrew and the Mark Andrew Campaign, alleging deficiencies in the pre-general campaign finance report recently filed with Hennepin County.

The reason this is interesting, and more than a little suspicious, of course, is that Tuesday, November 5th is election day when voters will cast their multiple choice ballots for mayor in Minneapolis.

Campaign finance complaints of questionable validity!

Gee, if I didn’t know any better I would think that the above two items bear all the markings of an actual, honest to goodness campaign for Mayor. But since this race is going to be decided by Ranked Choice Voting, those things must really be civil and substantial points about policy differences.

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #8

Mitigates political polarization

From the earlier linked article on San Francisco’s Mayoral election:

Also, the 16 candidates for mayor failed to distinguish themselves from each other.

“There was no debate. There was no difference. There was no choice,” said political consultant Jim Ross. “Voters thought, ‘I can’t tell the difference between all these guys.’ “

From “A blinding flash of the obvious“:

Instead of encouraging candidates to define themselves and point out their differences, RCV promotes a form of political prostitution that encourages voters to think that a candidate is like their guy or gal.

Ranked Choice Voting does seem to reduce political polarization, but it does so at the cost of candidates contrasting themselves with one another. The question becomes, is that a good trade-off to make? As a voter do you want to learn about the differences between candidates during a campaign or do you want to learn about their similarities?

Verdict: Valid Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #9

Combines two elections in one so that voters only have to make one trip to the polls and taxpayers have to pay for only one election

This is actually the least spun, and most honest of all the talking points that FairVote presents. Like with the previous talking point, I’m not sure that these are good things in the end, but regardless of that they are things that Ranked Choice Voting, as implemented in Minneapolis, accomplishes.

Verdict: Valid Talking Point

Ranked Choice Voting Talking Point #10

Reduces the cost of campaigning

Gary Schiff would disagree:

In his view, “It simply costs more money to compete with five other candidates in a November election than it costs to come in first or second in a primary.”

In the old system, Schiff said, candidates could target their message first at the 25 percent of the voters who cast ballots in a primary election and then at the 50 percent who would vote in November.

Under the old system a campaign could start small and grow as it advanced further in the process, meaning you could start with a rather small campaign staff and ramp up after you had achieved certain milestones, like winning the party endorsement or winning the primary.

With the elimination of the primary election because of Ranked Choice Voting, this isn’t really an option anymore. There is no winnowing of the field, where resources get consolidated to fewer and fewer candidates. Instead, whomever has access to a lot of cash right from the get-go has a huge advantage over the field in a way that wasn’t the case before.

Verdict: Bogus Talking Point

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