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Anthony Newby: Jacobs and Miller Are Wrong

Jacobs and Miller Are Wrong

Submitted OpEd by Anthony Newby, February 15, 2014

Democracy is a work in progress. For the last 150 years weve made the slow and often frustrating push towards a more equal electoral process. After the 15th Amendment, after the 24th Amendment, after the Voting Rights Act, voters of color have always experienced disproportionate obstacles to the ballot box. No local, statewide or national reform effort has yet managed to fully compensate for the structural inequities in our society. But each of those measures has helped to enfranchise more Americans and brought us that much closer to the ultimate goal of direct democracy and representation for all. Ranked Choice Voting is the latest attempt to produce more equitable outcomes at the ballot box.

While I agree with some of the conclusions offered in Lawrence Jacobs and Joanne M. MillersFeb. 13 oped (Ranked Choice voting: By the data, still flawed) , including the observation that Ranked Choice Voting virtually ended negative campaigning in Minneapolis and St. Paul last year, Im left confused by much of it. Its basic premise seems to be that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) isnt a fixall to our democratic system, something RCV supporters including FairVote Minnesota have acknowledged repeatedly over the years. But implicit in this scattered critique is the supposition that the old municipal primary system was somehow more democratic, and did a better job of enfranchising poor voters and voters of color. Surely Jacobs and Miller know better.

If they mean to compare Ranked Choice Voting to an imaginary perfect voting system in which all income and racial disparities are erased, then the results of the inaugural round of RCV comes up short. Its indisputable, however, that scrapping the old, unrepresentative municipal primary, which was attended by a tiny, disproportionately whiter and wealthier slice of the electorate, has vastly expanded participation in the political process.

Jacobs and Miller also obscure the incontestable fact that huge majorities of voters ranked their ballots in 2013: 88 percent of voters citywide ranked their ballots for mayor and 78 percent ranked all three. In the competitive Ward 5 City Council race in North Minneapolis, one in which Neighborhoods Organizing for change (NOC) did considerable work to engage the community about the RCV process, over 75 percent of the voters ranked their ballots. In addition, voter turnout in Ward 5 was 52 percent higher than it was in 2009, a huge testament to voters understanding and confidence in the system.

We can attribute these remarkable statistics in part to smart and effective community engagement efforts by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) and other organizations. Most analysts still anticipated that the relatively new system of voting, couple with a large number of candidates, might create more opportunity for error. The results proved the experts wrong.

And while Jacobs and Miller dwell at length on the nominal difference of 1.56 percent between the more affluent and the poorer parts of town (incidentally, making rather sweeping characterizations of whole wards), were celebrating the fact that 95.08 percent of voters in the poorer parts completed their ballot correctly the first time. Before RCV, municipal primary elections saw turnout as low as one third of the general election.

The scheduling, structure and lack of community engagement tied to primary elections meant that they were traditionally dominated by white privileged voters. In some precincts in my ward, Ward 5, primary turnout has been as low as 5 percent. By eliminating that unrepresentative step in the process, RCV has welcomed more voters (and more diverse voters) fully into the process of choosing our leaders.

The big picture here that Jacobs and Miller are ignoring is that voters across all incomes, education levels, and races clearly understood that RCV gives them more power and more choice in their elections. In every ward of Minneapolis, a majority of voters used Ranked Choice Voting, liked it, and want to keep using it. Yes, voter turnout was higher in more affluent and white areas. But less so than in other off year elections. RCV is not directly responsible for the election of Minneapolis first ever Somali, Hmong and Latina city council members but it did play a small role in helping to even the playing field to make their victories possible.

Those of us engaged in the hard work of reforming and improving elections in our state will continue to try to close the barriers that lock out disadvantaged voters. And well work to ensure that turnout, already much higher than that in many other major cities, continues to grow. RCV is not the cure to these issues but it is absolutely a step in the right direction. Minneapolis is on the right track and were proud to be part of the process.

Anthony Newby is Executive Director of Minneapolis Neighborhoods Organizing for Change

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