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Memo to St. Louis Park Charter Commission, Nov. 5, 2017

MEMORANDUM

To: St. Louis Park Charter Commission

Cc: St. Louis Park Mayor and City Council

From: Jeanne Massey, FairVote Minnesota Executive Director; jeanne.massey@fairvotemn.org

Date: December 5, 2017

Re: Ranked Choice Voting

FairVote Minnesota applauds your efforts to consider the adoption of Ranked Choice Voting for St. Louis Park municipal elections. While eliminating the city primary elections solved one problem – eliminating the cost and low-turnout participation of municipal primaries – it created another. The problem now exists that elected officials can win with a mere minority of voter support. This is especially true in competitive multi-candidate races like the Ward 1 race this year. Ranked Choice Voting provides a simple and cost-effective “instant runoff” solution to the problem of vote-splitting and minority rule. It ensures winners receive the broadest support possible in a single election in November when turnout is higher and more diverse.

The use of RCV in Minneapolis and St. Paul this year has demonstrated several other successes, including:

  • More choice for voters without the risk of spoiler and wasted vote dynamics
  • More diverse slates of candidates and winners
  • Significantly higher voter participation driven by more choice and competitive elections
  • An empowered electorate – nearly 90 percent of Minneapolis voters ranked their ballots and 76 percent of St. Paul voters
  • More substantive and civil campaigns among the candidates

You can see a summary of the successful RCV elections this year in the Twin Cities here. We are continuing to evaluate the election, including exit poll data, and are eager to share the results in more detail as they become available.

The Commission raised several questions at its last meeting, which the staff report addresses well. I’d like to take this opportunity to provide some additional perspective and information regarding these questions, some of which are more political than technical, based on our research and the experience of RCV in Minnesota and other cities.

1. What are the types of elections that are run in other Hennepin County cities that do not have Primary elections? Are they all at-large seats? Do they elect the top vote-getters in one race to fill multiple seats?

Here’s a breakdown of cities in Hennepin County and the types of elections they hold.

  • Total cities in Hennepin County: 45
  • Cities with odd-year elections: 8
  • Cities with even-year elections: 37
  • Cities without primaries: 34
  • Cities with primaries: 11 (10 of which are Home Rule cities)

The majority of cities hold municipal elections that:

  • are in even years,
  • do not have primaries, and
  • are simple plurality at-large voting (i.e., top vote-getters or first-past-the-post)

St. Louis Park is among the select subset of other cities with:

  • home rule authority
  • odd-year municipal elections with primaries
  • single-seat ward elections

These cities include:

  • St. Louis Park (Population 48,747) – until this year when it eliminated municipal primaries
  • Bloomington (Population: 88,299)
  • Minnetonka (Population: 52,741)
  • Minneapolis (Population: 419,952)

All other cities with primaries hold elections in even years:

  • Brooklyn Center (Population: 31,231) – Home Rule
  • Brooklyn Park (Population: 80,450) – Home Rule
  • Crystal (Population: 22,855) – Home Rule
  • Dayton (Population: 5,167) – Home Rule
  • New Hope (Population: 21,600) – Home Rule
  • Richfield (Population: 36,338) – Home Rule
  • Robbinsdale (Population: 14,704) – Home Rule
  • Rogers (Population: 12,539) – Statutory

All of the cities without primaries face the same problem St. Louis Park now has – the prospect of split votes and electing winners with only a minority of support.

At some point in their history, each of the cities with primaries decided to hold them, which would ensure winning candidates had the support of a majority of voters in competitive multi-candidate elections. Over time, turnout in municipal elections has declined and this trend has been especially pronounced in primaries. Now, cities are seeking solutions to this problem.

If moving forward St. Louis Park only had two-way races, then eliminating the primary and holding only the general election would be fine. But if the trend of the past five election cycles continues to hold true – and there’s no indication it would not – that’s highly unlikely; while the prospect of spoiler dynamics and electing minority winners is highly likely. All of the primaries since 2009 were three- or four-way races. This year’s election in Ward 1 resulted in a split outcome with no candidate emerging with a majority of votes. Without RCV, candidates would only need to seek support from their base to win and to seek re-election. And voters would be compelled to vote strategically for fear of wasting their vote or helping elect the candidate they like the least. RCV avoids these problems by allowing voters to rank and providing for a runoff in a single election.  

2. Provide a rough cost estimate of the administrative costs related to the implementation and administration of an RCV election.

City Clerk Melissa Kennedy is correct in her response to this question that costs depend on the size of the electorate and the approach St. Louis Park decides to take with regard to implementation. Many of the expenses outlined in the staff report occur in any election cycle (election judge training, election materials and supplies, among others) but would be allocated differently under RCV elections.

Additional funding for voter outreach and education does not need to be expensive. In addition to providing information on the website, the single most beneficial educational tool the city can provide is a mailing with a sample ballot to each voting household.

The city could rely on The League of Women Voters, FairVote Minnesota and other community partners to also provide grassroots outreach and education to voters as we do in Minneapolis and St. Paul currently. The city would not need to spend money on these activities.

With regard to the cost of ballot tabulation, automated software may be available for use when St. Louis Park implements RCV. If this is not the case, the Minneapolis method (which is conducted with the assistance of spreadsheets) is faster, cheaper and more accurate than ever. With several improvements made to the system since the last election, Minneapolis election officials tabulated council races in less than an hour and the citywide mayoral race with more than 105,000 voters and 16 candidates in less than four hours. All 22 races were tabulated the Wednesday following the election and completed by 5 p.m. that day. The Minneapolis method is readily adaptable for use in St. Louis Park and other cities in Hennepin County.   

3. Is there a study or analysis of how campaign spending has changed in Minneapolis or St. Paul since the implementation of RCV?

There are not yet any longitudinal studies of campaign spending under RCV to allow for analysis across similar races, but what we have documented and observed are three important dynamics:

  1. Candidates frequently report that running under RCV is less expensive because they only have one election to fundraise for.  Under the old system, they raised and spent money to win both a primary in August and, for those who advanced, a general election in November. Under RCV, there’s only one election in November.
  2. Having more money does not hold the same advantage as it does under the current plurality system in which running expensive negative mailings backfire. In the recent elections in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, expensive attack ads (by outside expenditure groups) backfired against the candidates they intended to help.
  3. While having more money still helps candidates, this is only true if it is targeted for grassroots campaigning and reaching out for second and third choice support. In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race, Betsy Hodges was outspent 3.5 to 1 by her leading opponent. She and her PAC had much less money, but a much stronger grassroots campaign that reached more voters and built a coalition of first, second and third-choice support. In this year’s election, resource-poor mayoral candidate Ray Dean placed second in a crowded field of 16 candidates, ahead of the most well-funded candidate Tom Hoch. In the Ward 4 race, Phillipe Cunningham won over the much better-funded campaign of incumbent Barb Johnson.

4. Have there been any studies related to incumbents and how often incumbents win in St. Louis Park and in cities where RCV is used?

In any election system, incumbents have the advantage. If the voters are happy with their representative, they will re-elect that candidate under the current system or under RCV. If an incumbent has lost the confidence of his or her voters, or the district has significantly changed and grown, the race is likely to attract serious challengers and the incumbent is at risk of losing. This is true under either system.

What we saw in Minneapolis in 2017 was a mix of incumbent-challenged races that won and lost. Incumbents in Wards 1 (Kevin Reich), Ward 6 (Abdi Warsame), Ward 7 (Lisa Goodman), and Ward 9 (Alondra Cano) won while incumbents in Ward 4 (Barb Johnson) and the mayor (Betsy Hodges) lost.  

5. Why did the ballot question related to RCV fail in Duluth? What were the opinions of voters on that process and ballot measure?

The ballot question in Duluth failed due to efforts of opponents who were vested in protecting the status quo and who led a negative misinformation campaign to frighten voters. Despite the ballot measure being supported by a broad coalition of organizations and community leaders – including the Duluth Area Community Foundation, Mayor Emily Larson, Representative Erik Simonson, then Senator Roger Reinert and several other elected and community leaders – it failed to pass.

This outcome is in contrast to RCV passing decisively in Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities across the country.

Opposition to RCV is not unlike campaigns waged against other movements for equal rights such as marriage equality, immigration reform, universal health care, among others. Those who feel threatened by the change fight to preserve the status quo even if that change is better for the community as a whole.

6. Why has RCV been repealed in other cities in the United States?

RCV has been repealed in only 3 jurisdictions. In two of these cases – Burlington (VT) and Aspen (CO) – the repeal was led by opponents and their allies who lost under RCV. Ranked Choice Voting worked just as it should have, but the established interests who lost when the switch happened blamed the new system and maneuvered to repeal it.

In Pierce County (WA), the switch to RCV was driven by voters’ dissatisfaction with closed primaries in which they had to reveal their party preference. When the state restored the open nonpartisan primary system, the use of RCV seemed redundant to voters. Opponents took advantage of that change and moved to repeal RCV.

A repeal effort was once again attempted in St. Paul this year and it failed. The RCV experience in the Twin Cities has been very positive and voters not only have demonstrated that they understand the system, they have stated in independent surveys that they like it and don’t want to revert to the old primary system.

I hope this information is helpful to you as you study and consider the adoption of Ranked Choice Voting in St. Louis Park. As referenced earlier, the preliminary results of this year’s elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul can be viewed here. As additional information becomes available, we will provide you with further analysis. Click here to read about the outcomes in the 2013 and 2015 elections.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or would like any additional information. 

 
 

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