FAQ: Ranked Choice Voting for St. Louis Park


FAQ: RCV for St. Louis Park

1.   What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

Ranked Choice Voting is a method of voting in which voters rank candidates in order of preference: first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. It is a simple, commonsense reform that mandates elected officials have broad support and allows for more –and more diverse – candidates to run for office, giving voters more choice and more power in the ballot box.

RCV simulates a runoff, but in a single, decisive election in November when voter turnout is highest and most diverse. Voters rank their preferences knowing that if their first-choice candidate is eliminated in the runoff, their second choice will count. And if their second choice is defeated, their third choice will count, etc.

If no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the least popular candidate is defeated and votes for that candidate are reassigned to remaining choices based on the second preferences on those ballots. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of continuing ballots.  As a result, every vote counts and very few votes are wasted. Most importantly, voters are empowered to vote their conscience without worrying about “playing the spoiler”  or “wasting their vote.”

There's no perfect voting system, but RCV is a more effective, efficient, inclusive and participatory way to elect the most popular candidates than winner-take-all and two-round (primary-general) elections. 

2.   Why is RCV needed in St. Louis Park?

In May, 2017, the St. Louis Park City Council voted to amend the city charter to allow for the elimination of the municipal nonpartisan primary, which served the purpose of narrowing the candidate field to two candidates for each race. The decision was based on the fact that municipal primaries are expensive and have very low voter participation.

While eliminating the low-turnout, high-cost primary may be a positive step, the primary was an essential step in the runoff process to narrow the field (to two candidates) and ensure whoever won in November was the choice of a majority of voters. Simply eliminating that step means that all the candidates will be on the ballot in November and in competitive multi-candidate races, the vote will be split several ways and candidates can win with less than a majority of votes. The recent four-way Ward 1 primary race is a good example of such a race, with no candidate emerging with a majority of votes.

Changing to a winner-take-all system that produces plurality outcomes, in which winners would not have a majority mandate to govern, would be a step backward, not forward, for St. Louis Park.

Rather an eliminate the primary, RCV combines the primary and General Election into one election and provides for an “instant runoff” to ensure that the most popular candidates win.

3.   So, there would be no primary in August for city races?

That's correct. This is a decision the city council already made so even if RCV is not adopted, you would have only one election to attend in November. Using RCV in the General Election would ensure the will the majority prevails. 

4.   How do I mark my ballot under RCV?

You simply fill in the first-choice oval next to your favorite candidate, the second-choice oval next to your second favorite, and so on. You can rank as many – or as few – as you like. However, the more candidates you rank, the greater the chance that your vote will help to elect someone you like and prevent the election of a candidate you dislike. In other words, try to rank enough candidates so that at least one makes it to the final round. Under RCV, you can vote for your favorite candidate without fear that your vote will be “wasted” because you are assured if your first choice candidate doesn’t garner enough votes to win, your vote will count toward your second choice.

5.   How are the ballots counted?

RCV ballots are counted in rounds. If no one candidate receives a majority of votes (50 percent + 1), the least popular candidate is defeated and those ballots are reassigned to remaining candidates based on the second choice on those ballots. This process continues until one candidate reaches the winning threshold. See a helpful video and learn more about RCV's use in Minneapolis and St. Paul at www.rankyourvote.org

Keep in mind that some voters have only one or two preferences and, therefore, some ballots may be exhausted before the final round of counting if those voters' candidates are no longer in contention. Winning candidates will always have a majority of continuing ballots, i.e., those ballots counting in the final round), but not always a majority of initial ballots cast. It is the preference of the voter how many candidates he or she wishes to rank. 

6.   Can I “bullet vote” for just one candidate under RCV?

You are free to vote for only one candidate. However, if that candidate is less popular than the other candidates and is eliminated in the first round, you will not have a backup candidate to count in the next round. This choice would be analogous to voting in a primary but not in the general election if your favorite candidate doesn't make it through the first election. That's why it's in your best interest to rank as many candidates as you wish, rather than "bullet voting” for just your top favored candidate. Voting for the same candidate more than once is the same as voting for them just once: your ballot will count for your first choice as long as that candidate remains in the race.

7.   Does RCV give some voters more votes than others?

No. Every voter gets an equal vote. In every round of counting, every ballot counts as one vote for the highest-ranked candidate still in the running. If your candidate is still viable, your vote will count for your favorite candidate in the runoff round. If your candidate has been eliminated – just as in a traditional runoff election – you need to settle for one of the remaining candidates. Your vote automatically counts for whichever continuing candidate you prefer. The mistaken impression that some voters get more votes than others was the basis for a legal challenge to RCV in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that RCV fully complies with the principle of "one person, one vote" and gives equal weight to each voter.

8.   Some say that RCV is too complicated and it disenfranchises less affluent voters and people of color. Is this true?

No, this is a misinformed myth. The reality is that all groups of voters find RCV easy to understand and simple to use. In the first citywide test of RCV in Minneapolis in 2013, nearly 90 percent of voters ranked their ballots and 85 percent of polled voters – across all income, ethnic and age groups – said they found RCV simple to use.

More than two-thirds of voters said they were familiar with RCV before going to the polls.  Similar rates of understanding and ease of use are seen in St. Paul and in cities across the country where RCV is used.

RCV has been rolled out very smoothly in numerous cities across the country, and St. Louis Park would be no different.  As has happened in Minneapolis and St. Paul, FairVote Minnesota and the League of Women Voters would assist in conducting community voter education to ensure voters are aware of the change and prepared to rank their ballots on Election Day.

9.  Does RCV increase representation for women and communities of color?

Yes, election results are showing the RCV leads to increased opportunities for people of color to run and win elected office.

  • In California, where RCV has been used since 2004:
    • People of color have won 60% of all contests
    • Women have won 40% of all contests
    • 13 of 18 seats on the San Francisco council are people of color, an increase of 8 before RCV
  • In Minneapolis, where RCV has been used since 2009:
    • Following the first competitive races in 2013, RCV resulted in the city’s most ethnically diverse and gender-balanced city council.
    • The first Somali-American, Latina, and Hmong candidates were elected to the city council.
    • This year (2017), the number of candidates who are women, people of color or from different political parties are historically high.
    • Competitive candidates of color are running in the mayoral race and for 8 of 13 council seats. Competitive women candidates are running for mayor and 11 of 13 council seats.
  • In St. Paul, where RCV was introduced in 2011:
    • In 2013, RCV elected the city’s first Hmong city council member with second-choice votes. The second-place finisher, also a candidate of color, was selected to be the councilmember’s chief aide.
    • In 2015, Rebecca Noecker was elected with second-choice votes to become the ward’s first female council member.

10.   Does RCV lead to higher voter participation and turnout?

RCV naturally increases voter participation in the election of the winner by rolling the low-turnout primary into a single decisive election in November when turnout is higher and more diverse. However, RCV does not necessarily increase voter turnout per se, as turnout in any election is determined by other factors, most importantly the level of competitiveness of a race, media attention and GOTV efforts. 

That said, there has a been a slight uptick in turnout in Minneapolis and St. Paul in races where RCV has been used to determine the winners. This could be due to the level of competitiveness of the races which was higher under RCV. In Minneapolis, turnout in the 2013 mayoral race was the highest it had been in twelve years. In St. Paul’s Ward 2 RCV race in 2015, turnout was 33% higher than in 2011, and the highest it has been in 8 years. 

While it's not clear how much RCV may help to increase turnout directly, the data show RCV does not lead to decreased turnout while increasing the effective participation in the election of the winners. 

11.   Do RCV ballots have a lot of errors?

No, RCV elections do not have significantly more errors than traditional elections. In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election, less than half of one percent of all ballots cast in the mayoral race had errors, such as an over- or under-vote. Ninety percent of these were correctable errors, resulting in a 99.94 percent valid ballot rate. Pretty impressive!

12.   Does RCV really help tone down negative campaigning?

Yes, switching to RCV has led to an increase of substantive, issue-based campaigning and a decrease in negativity and mudslinging in elections across the country, including in Minnesota. In the highly competitive 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race, candidates clearly stood apart on some issues and found common ground on others, without resorting to attacks. While negative campaigning isn’t as common in local elections as it is in state or federal partisan races, it does happen and RCV discourages that behavior. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, however. It can, but it is also likely to backfire, resulting in a loss of votes for candidates who engage in that behavior, or by PACS and Independent Expenditures working on behalf of those candidates. 

13.   Will RCV result in a ballot with too many candidates?

This concern has arisen following the long list of candidates in the 2013 mayoral race in Minneapolis. This was an anomaly and unlikely to occur again in Minneapolis, and is highly unlikely in smaller communities like St. Louis Park. The large number of candidates in 2013 was the result of that year being the first competitive open mayoral race in 12 years, coupled with no party endorsements and a very low filing fee. The city has since implemented a requirement to collect a minimum number of signatures or pay a higher filing fee. The result is a much smaller list of filed candidates for mayor this year. In council races, the number of candidates running in an open or competitive race is typically between three and five.

14.   Does RCV favor one party over another?

No, RCV doesn’t favor any political party; it simply ensures that outcomes reflect the will of the majority of voters. RCV is all about increasing the range of viable choice for voters by eliminating the fear of spoiler candidates, regardless of party affiliation. That’s just good, smart democracy that is truly representative. Furthermore, RCV has been endorsed by political leaders from all parties.

15.   Does RCV affect party endorsements?

No, party endorsements continue the same as they always have under RCV: some will result in an endorsement and some will not. Parties may consider using RCV for their endorsement process and providing their members with a ranked slate of candidates. While a party would provide backing only to its endorsed candidate, providing its members with a ranked ballot gives the party more influence over how its members rank all the way down the ballot.

16.   How do we adopt RCV in St. Louis Park?

Like Minneapolis and St. Paul, St. Louis Park has a city charter that can be amended to allow for a different voting system. The charter can be amended by a unanimous vote by the City Council as a recommendation by the Charter Commission (as was the case for the amendment to eliminate the city primary) or via referendum in the November election. A question proposing RCV for city elections could be placed on the ballot through a vote by the Charter Commission or City Council, or by a petition of the voters. Note, this change impacts only mayoral and city council races; not elections for school board, governor, state legislature, or Congress.

17.   Will new equipment be needed to conduct RCV elections?

No. Hennepin County, which provides the election system for St. Louis Park, has new RCV-compatible machines that can deliver fast results. They can read a ranked ballot, create a data file of rankings and export a data file of rankings for independent tabulation. Automatic tabulation software is anticipated by the next election cycle, but should the software not be certified by the time St. Louis Park implements RCV, the city can use the existing expedited spreadsheet system already in use in Minneapolis to complete the tabulation of RCV races.  That system produces results in a city council race, which would be equivalent to a mayoral size race in St. Louis Park, in a couple of hours.

18.   Where else is RCV used?

Ranked Choice is a long-standing and proven voting system used in democracies across the world, including Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and London.

It is used in several U.S. jurisdictions, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Portland, (MA), San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro (CA), Telluride (CO), Takoma Park (MD), Cambridge (MA).  It was also used in Aspen (CO) and Burlington (VT) before being repealed in efforts led by candidates who were angry over losing under the new system. RCV’s popularity has prevented this dynamic from rolling RCV back in the other cities. In fact, we are seeing a new wave of cities across the country exploring and implementing RCV.

If St. Louis Park adopts RCV, it will be the third city in Minnesota and potentially the next city nationwide to make the switch.  

RCV is pending implementation in Sarasota (FL), Benton County (OR), Santa Fe (NM), and Memphis (TN). Cities in Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, New York, Washington, Maryland, Nevada and elsewhere are exploring RCV.

Maine became the first state to adopt RCV for state and federal elections beginning in 2018. Several other states use RVC for military and overseas voting: South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois and Louisiana.

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