News

What to expect in the 2017 Minneapolis and St. Paul RCV elections

 

MEMORANDUM

 

To: Interested Parties

From: Jeanne Massey, FairVote Minnesota Executive Director

Date: October 25, 2017

Subject: 2017 Election Expectations relative to Ranked Choice Voting

SUMMARY

This memorandum will guide the reader through expectations in advance of the 2017 elections in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, in which Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) will be used, including:

  • Voter turnout expectations
    • Possible factors driving and decreasing turnout
    • RCV’s relationship to voter turnout
  • How many voters will rank?
  • Timing and election results
  • Civility
  • Majority winner and exhausted ballots
  • Voter understanding
  • Voter preference
  • Increased diversity
  1. What do we expect turnout to be? Will Ranked Choice Voting play a role?
  • Taking various factors into consideration, we estimate turnout to fall in the range of 75,000 and 95,000 voters in Minneapolis and 48,000-60,000 in St. Paul, or 30 to 38 percent of voters, a range that is slightly below and slightly above the 34 percent turnout in the open mayoral race.
  • Variables that affect turnout include level of competitiveness, registration levels, PACs and nationwide trends in off-year municipal elections.
  • While Ranked Choice Voting increases the number of voters who elect the winners by eliminating the low-turnout primary, it is not a driving factor in voter turnout per se.

Several factors are driving turnout, both up and down, relative to previous cycles:

Competition

This makes intuitive sense. The competitiveness of each of these races (as determined by margin of support for the eventual winner) correlates with overall turnout percentage. Due to Mayor Coleman’s decision not to run for re-election in St. Paul, there are currently 10 candidates running for mayor, five of whom (Carter, Harris, Dickinson, Goldstein, and Thao) are considered to be the most competitive in the race.

In Minneapolis, first-term Mayor Betsy Hodges is facing several competitive challengers making this mayoral race as highly contested as the open mayoral race in 2013. There are 16 candidates, seven of whom (Hodges, Frey, Hoch, Dehn, Levy-Pounds, Rahman and Flowers) are considered to be the most competitive.

Additionally, several of the 13 city council seats also can be seen as competitive, to varying degrees.

High Levels of Registration

Based on the latest voter registration numbers from the Minnesota Secretary of State Office, there are 247,120 registered voters in Minneapolis and 157,930 in St. Paul. Without taking into consideration 2017 same-day registrants (which, based on previous years, could be more than 6,000 additional voters in Minneapolis and 2,000 in St. Paul on Election Day), this is still a higher level of registration than in any of the previous six municipal elections.

Emergence of Candidate-Affiliated PACs

Money spent on elections helps drive turnout. Candidate spending raises the salience of the race and campaigns invest money in turning out their supporters. Campaign finance limits have historically kept campaign spending in municipal races low relative to similar-sized cities with higher municipal spending limits. However, now Independent groups can raise and spend unlimited funds, increasing traditional fundraising in the race and using that funding for mailings and TV ads.  We saw a significant increase in candidate-affiliated PACs in the 2013 mayoral race in Minneapolis and 2015 Ward 2 race in St. Paul. If fundraising follows 2013 levels, these PACs could raise and spend an additional $100,000 to $300,000 in each of the Minneapolis and St. Paul elections this year.

While the increase in PAC spending may help increase the visibility of the elections overall and help drive up turnout, it has not been shown that this spending is helpful to the candidates it’s intended to support. In fact, in the 2013 mayoral race, Mayor Hodges was outspent 3.5 times to 1 by her leading opponent. Similar outcomes have occurred in competitive mayoral races under RCV in the Bay Area.  While we have not conducted an in-depth study on the impact of PAC spending in RCV elections, there is anecdotal evidence indicating that the value of PAC spending, which traditionally is used for negative mailings and TV ads, is not as significant under RCV. This is because RCV rewards candidates who can build coalitions and penalizes those who engage in negative campaign strategies. PACs are well advised to use their funds to promote their candidates, not to attack their opponents.

 

Factors That May Depress Turnout

Off-year Voter Participation Waning Nationwide

Despite traditionally high levels of turnout for state and federal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including the very highly charged 2016 presidential election, the trend in municipal election turnout (both nationally and in Minnesota) has been downward. This waning is not universal, but it seems to be a nationwide trend.  However, we saw a slight uptick in turnout in the 2013 mayoral race in Minneapolis and in the St. Paul Ward 2 turnout under Ranked Choice Voting, which may have been due to the increase in competition in these races.

Voters are Unaccustomed to Voting in Off-year Elections

It has been a full 12 years since there was a competitive citywide election in St. Paul and four years since Minneapolis voters have gone to the polls for city elections. Further, the races have not yet appeared to generate high levels of “buzz” and media attention that helps drive voter attention to, and excitement about, the race. This may change in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. It may be that the lack of media focus compared to the attention given to state- and federal-year partisan elections is a factor in lower engagement and familiarity with the election.

Voters are Becoming More Alienated

Nationwide, election turnout data show an alarming trend, with nearly half of eligible voters deciding not to vote on Election Day, 2016.  While the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has led to an increase in political activism generally, including an increase in candidates running for local office in 2017, it is not clear this engagement will translate to higher voter turnout.

RCV and Voter Turnout

RCV is not a primary driver of turnout, up or down

As Professor David Schultz wrote in 2013, there has been no indication in other municipalities or countries where RCV is used that the RCV process has a negative effect on turnout. “If anything, research has long indicated that one of the significant drivers of turnout is perceived choice and competitiveness in an election, both of which will have been elevated in the Minneapolis municipal elections by RCV.” Because of the ability to win by coalition, there are more paths to victory for more candidates. Likewise, in the robust fields for mayor, no clear front-runner has emerged. These two facts mean there are more viable choices for voters, which research indicates should have a positive effect on turnout.

That being said, if turnout is higher than expected, it is not necessarily accurate to say that RCV was a primary reason. The important conclusion is that there are several factors driving and depressing turnout, and parsing out the causes of voter turnout is not a cut-and-dried undertaking.

2. How many people do we expect to use their rankings?

  • The more competitive the race, the more voters rank.
  • Anticipated share of voters ranking in the citywide mayoral and competitive council races is at least 80 percent.

In the 2013 open mayoral race in Minneapolis, nearly 90 percent of voters ranked their ballot for mayor and a full 78 percent ranked all three available options. In the 2015 Ward 2 council race in St. Paul, 73 percent of voters ranked their ballots. These rates of ranking demonstrate a very high level of RCV proficiency among voters and far surpassed expectations of skeptics who claimed that expecting more than one quarter or a third of voters to use the ranking system would be “unrealistic.”

We anticipate a similarly high level of ranking in the two mayoral races in Minneapolis and St. Paul this year, with at least 80 percent of voters ranking their ballots.

 

The important take-away from the 2013 Minneapolis election and 2011 St. Paul election, as well as elections in other cities that use RCV, is that when using RCV voters act in sophisticated ways. More voters use their rankings when the race is competitive – just as voter turnout is higher in competitive elections generally – and are more likely to do so if they vote for candidates in less strong positions. And voters are less likely to rank if they vote for front-running candidates because they would not expect their rankings to come into effect. In general, voters are more likely to rank candidates when they expect the rankings to come into effect, and less likely to do so otherwise.

Previous RCV elections lead us to expect that in competitive races with more than two candidates (e.g., the mayoral race) the use of rankings by voters who do not rank the top two vote-getting candidates first (i.e., those voters whose rankings will be used) will be well over 75 percent.

An exception may exist among voters who are actively encouraged to bullet vote by candidates and campaigns that discourage voters from indicating additional preferences on the ballot. In the 2013 election, there was a very forceful and overt strategy by the Ward 6 Abdi Warsame campaign and mayoral campaign of Mark Andrew to tell Somali voters to vote for only those candidates in the respective candidate and mayoral races. As a result, rates of ranking were half that of the citywide average of 88 percent. We are concerned that a similar strategy is taking place again this year, to the detriment of voters. Should their candidates not prevail through the rounds of counting, these voters will lose their influence over the outcome of the election.  Candidates who encourage voting for only themselves are disempowering voters.

3. How long will it take before we know who won?

  • In Minneapolis, city election officials anticipate next day results for all races, including the mayoral race.
  • In St. Paul, city election officials anticipate results by Saturday, November 11.

Minneapolis elections officials have said that all races in which a candidate reaches the threshold among first choices will be declared on election night. They will begin tabulating the results for races that are not determined in the initial round the day following Election Day and anticipate final results by the end of the day. Races are counted in the order in which they appear on the ballot – Mayor, City Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, Park Board. With the new DS200 ESS voting equipment used in the 2013 election, the reduced number of candidates due to a higher filing threshold and improvements made in the batch elimination process of mathematically unviable candidates, the city will be able to reduce the reallocation count from three days in 2013 to one day this election cycle.

After the first round of tabulation, we expect several mayoral candidates to be determined mathematically incapable of winning and therefore eliminated. Put simply, just because there are 16 candidates running for mayor does not mean there will be an equal number of rounds of vote counting.

While St. Paul has new RCV-capable machines manufactured by Hart, Inc., they currently lack the exportable cast ballot record capability that the Minneapolis ESS machines have and, thus, cannot conduct the reallocation with the use of spreadsheets as in Minneapolis. As such, it will again require a manual count of ballots to determine the winner in the mayoral race. It will begin the recount of the ballots on Thursday following the election and continue with rounds of counting and the reallocation of ballots until one candidate reaches the winning threshold. City officials anticipate a result no later than Saturday, November 11.

Minneapolis will post results to the City's website as each race is completed. See full details here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BweyCBC46zpnSmx0WUFHYmFfREk/view

As in 2011 and 2013, Ramsey County Elections will allow the public to observe the count, which will take place at Ramsey County Elections. 

By the next municipal election cycle in each city (2019 in St. Paul and 2021 in Minneapolis), election officials anticipate the use of fully automated reallocation software.

4. Civility

By far, one of the biggest story lines emerging from the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election, 2013 St. Paul special Ward 1 election and 2015 St. Paul Ward 2 election, was the decrease in negative campaigning and increased civility and focus on issues in the debates. This is not to say that no negative campaigning occurred. Some supporters continued to engage in traditional attack-style campaigning, including on social media and mailings by Independent Expenditures on behalf of candidates, but we saw those tactics backfire in the loss of votes for their candidates.

Following the 2015 Ward 2 election, St. Paul resident Richard Carlbom observed, “It was amazing to see how strongly voters reacted when a negative mailing, which came from an Independent Expenditure group, was injected into the campaign. It felt out of place.”

The mayoral races in 2017 provide more examples of how RCV increases campaign and election civility. While there has been some direct negative campaigning between some of the mayoral candidates in both cities, the negative response from voters has been immediate and candidates have responded with fewer direct attacks.  

In fact, now we are starting to see mayoral candidates that recently begun actively courting each other’s bases and listing each other as their second or third choices; negative, non-issue-based attacks are not universally absent, but noticeably infrequent.

Some who liked the traditional head-to-head boxing matches complain that Ranked Choice Voting elections are “less exciting” or more “boring” than other elections, but the degree to which campaigning has been issue-based and revolved around points of consensus (and differences) on important municipal issues has been unprecedented in Minnesota. As one candidate forum sponsor noted, “the candidates were very cordial for a change.”

In fact, in the races that are largely framed as a two-person race, it’s more common to see traditional-style attack campaigning, which is effective in driving votes away from opponents and toward the other candidate. This strategy is much less effective in three-way-plus races where a voter has more choice. It is especially ineffective under RCV, which may require second-and sometimes third-choice votes to win.

5. Majority Winner & Exhausted Ballots

  • The winner in an RCV election is the candidate who has a majority of continuing ballots, i.e., those expressing a preference in the final round.
  • The importance of a majority threshold is more than a number; it’s what striving for majority support fosters: it incentivizes candidates to reach out beyond their base to the entire electorate, because it is only with those second and third choices that the eventual winner can prevail.

The eventual winner of the mayoral races (and other single-seat races) will have won 50% +1 of the ballots remaining in the final round of counting. If a candidate receives 50% + 1 of all first choices, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate receives 50% + 1 of all first choices, then the candidates who are mathematically incapable of winning are eliminated and the voters who made those candidates their first choice have their votes transferred to their second choice.

The votes are then re-tallied to see if anyone has 50% + 1 of the remaining ballots. As candidates are eliminated, some ballots will become exhausted. This happens when a voter’s first- second and third-choice candidate are defeated before the final round. Once a ballot is exhausted, it no longer factors into further rounds.

As the counting rounds progress, the winner must achieve 50% + 1 of the remaining ballots (all ballots minus those that have been exhausted). The rationale for this is simple: A vote continues to transfer until all the candidates that voter chose remain in contention. If a voter has expressed no preference among the remaining candidates, then that ballot no longer factors into tabulation because the voter has given no opinion about preferences for the remaining candidates. The more choices a voter ranks, the greater the chance his or her ballot will influence the final round.

Because of this element of the counting process, it is possible that the eventual winner will win with a majority of the ballots left in the final round of counting – but with slightly less than a majority of total ballots cast in the election. For instance, in the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral election, a total of 35 candidates ran. The counting went more than 30 round rounds, with individual candidates or batches of candidates being eliminated in each successive round. Mayor Hodges won with 61 percent of continuing ballots in the final round and 49 percent of initial ballots cast (19.6 percent of ballots had exhausted). The fact that she nearly won with a full majority of initial ballots cast speaks to the high level of voter ranking in that race.

In fact, it could be that the exhausted ballot rate would have been lower in 2013 if voters could have marked more than three preferences. We cannot know this for certain as we saw that most exhausted ballots occurred among voters who had just one or two preferences. And in the vast majority of races, three rankings is sufficient for a voter to fully express their preferences. However, in highly competitive races like the 2013 and 2017 mayoral elections, some voters may wish to rank more than three, which we’ve seen in other cities that use RCV and allow for more rankings. The ability to rank only three preferences in Minneapolis is due to a machine capability limitation. That same limitation does not exist in St. Paul, where voters may rank up to six preferences. Minneapolis Elections anticipates it will have the ability to allow for more rankings with upgraded RCV software in the next election cycle, a change that FairVote Minnesota advocates.

The important point to remember here is that of the overall votes cast, the individual who wins still has to campaign and govern toward a majority. In a typical “first-past-the-post” election, there is little to no incentive for candidates to appeal to other candidates’ bases or a broader range of voters. In an RCV election, there are huge incentives to reach out to the entire electorate for second and third choices in addition to first choices, because it is only with those second and third choices that the eventual winner can prevail. This process fosters a significantly more civil and substantive campaign, gives the winner a stronger mandate with which to govern and holds the winner accountable to a much broader range of the electorate.

See video on the power of ranking your ballot.

6. Voter Understanding

  • RCV is proven to be simple for voters.
  • Voters consistently express high levels of understanding RCV

We expect voters to understand Ranked Choice Voting, and to operate within the electoral process in sophisticated ways. After the 2013 highly competitive Minneapolis mayoral election, 85% of Minneapolis voters surveyed – across all income, ethnic and age groups – found Ranked Choice Voting easy to use. Likewise, voters used the system in tellingly sophisticated ways. They ranked more in competitive races, and ranked less if their first choice was a front-runner/incumbent.

High rates of ranking consistently occurred across the competitive, multi-candidate City Council and Park Board races as well in 2013, including in the lower-income and highly diverse Wards 5 and 9.

Ranked 2 candidates                Ranked 3 candidates               

Park Board At-Large                              76%                                          61%

Ward 5 City Council                              75%                                          63%

Ward 9 City Council                              81%                                          61%     

Ward 13 City Council                            83%                                          63%

Just half of one percent (0.5%) of all ballots cast in the large Minneapolis mayoral race had errors, such as an over-vote or skipped ranking. Ninety percent of these were correctable errors, resulting in a 99.94% valid ballot rate.

This high level of voter proficiency wasn’t surprising given that two-thirds – 67% to 80% – of polled voters across all age, income, education and ethnic groups said they were familiar with RCV before going to the polls. Similar rates of familiarity were experienced in the 2015 St. Paul Ward 2 election, demonstrating the importance and success of the outreach and education efforts undertaken by FairVote MN, the City of Minneapolis and others to prepare voters for Election Day.
 

We anticipate the same trends to emerge in this year’s election, and such trends indicate that the voting populace deeply understands the RCV process. If those who make the eventual winner their top choice rank less than other voters, or if rankings are more prevalent in competitive city council races, these facts indicate deep strategic understanding of the RCV process.

6. Voter Preference

  • Voters prefer RCV over the traditional primary-general election system and would like to see it expanded statewide.

In the 2013 Minneapolis election, more than two-thirds (68%) of all voters expressed that they wanted to continue to use RCV in future municipal elections and 61 percent said they would like to see it used for state elections.  In the St. Paul 2015 election, 70 percent of voters said they wanted to continue using RCV in city elections and 60 percent said they would like it expanded to state elections.

High levels of support for RCV in Minneapolis exists among older, nonwhite, lower income and less educated voters, who critics claimed would not understand or like RCV: 62% of those aged 65 and older, 59% of people of color, 63% of those without a college degree, and 68% of those earning under $50,000 all said they wanted to see RCV continue in future city elections.

We anticipate similarly high levels of voter preference for the system this year.

7. Increased Diversity of Candidates and Winners

  • RCV is shown to increase the gender, ethnic and political diversity of candidates running and winning elections

RCV has increased representation for women and people of color by replacing unrepresentative, low-turnout elections with a single high-turnout and more diverse General Election, and by allowing for multiple candidates appealing to the same community to run without splitting the vote.

In cities with RCV, the share of candidates who are women and people of color has increased significantly.

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, up 8 before RCV

In Minneapolis, where RCV has been used since 2009:

  • Following the first truly 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
  • For the first time in decades, a viable independent conservative mayoral candidate was able to compete in the general election and was among the top four candidates.

In St. Paul, where RCV was introduced in 2011:

  • In 2011 and in this year’s mayoral race, highly competitive minor party candidates are running. 
  • In 2013, RCV elected the city’s first Hmong city council member with second-choice votes. The second-placed 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 councilmember.

This year, the number of candidates who are women, people of color or from different political parties is 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 for 11 of 13 council seats; competitive minor party or independent candidates are running in at least four of the 13 city council races in Minneapolis and in the St. Paul mayoral race.

To learn more about who’s on the ballot and how RCV works in Minneapolis and St. Paul, visit

Perspectives on Minneapolis’ 2013 RCV election: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgVp0WDANhk

Perspectives on St. Paul’s 2015 RCV election: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c-DBOEJR1c

Click here to download sample ballots: http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/

For more information or for interviews, contact:

Jeanne Massey

612-850-6897

Jeanne.Massey@fairvotemn.org

Become a Volunteer

Volunteer

Contribute and help us

Build a better democracy

Join the Movement

Join the Movement