cover of Citizens League Voice magazine

At all levels, our political system is growing more partisan, negative, and divisive, leaving voters feeling increasingly alienated and disempowered. With nearly half of all voters sitting out the 2016 presidential election, it’s obvious something is wrong with our electoral system. Studies also consistently find that an alarming number of voters no longer have faith in our democratic institutions or believe they are important. Systemic change must happen to restore voters’ faith and motivate them to participate in their own democracy.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a practical and effective response to the deep and growing problems in our democracy. It is a well-established electoral system that gives voters more choice and more power in their democracy, rewards candidates who find common ground and build consensus, eliminates spoiler and wasted vote dynamics, requires winners to earn broad popular support, and increases opportunities for more diverse candidates to run and win.

RCV fosters multiple-choice, competitive elections, which is the single biggest driver of voter turnout. In use for municipal elections since 2009, voter turnout in races using RCV has steadily increased in the Twin Cities. Voter participation saw its biggest jump in nearly two decades in 2017 when both cities held highly competitive elections.

Maine, which became the first state to use RCV in statewide partisan races, saw similarly high increases in turnout in their June 2018 primary. And this year’s special election for mayor in San Francisco under RCV also saw nearly record-high turnout.

RCV detractors will say that RCV is confusing and, in turn, deters voters, especially communities of color, from voting.  

With more than a decade of use in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the United States, the evidence resoundingly disproves such claims. In fact, voters find that argument insulting. In the 2017 elections, 92 percent of polled Minneapolis voters and 83 percent of St. Paul voters – across all income, ethnic and age groups – said RCV was simple to use and the vast majority prefer RCV over the old system.  

Not only does RCV actively foster more voter engagement, it eliminates the dreaded vote-splitting feature of the current system. This allows communities of color and other underrepresented groups to pool their votes on behalf of their preferred candidates. This powerful advantage, in addition to not getting weeded out in a low-turnout primary or post-election runoff, is giving new electoral opportunities to women and communities of color.

In fact, inclusivity is one of the most compelling reasons communities are making the switch to RCV. In cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco, city council diversity is historically high. San Francisco’s new mayor, London Breed, is the first African American woman elected to lead the city. Similarly, Melvin Carter became St. Paul’s first African American mayor in a highly competitive and diverse multi-candidate race last year.

In May, St. Louis Park became Minnesota’s third city to adopt RCV for municipal elections. Several other cities, including Bloomington and Rochester, are considering this option. The same is happening across the country, with Las Cruces (NM) and Amherst (MA) becoming the most recent jurisdictions to approve RCV.  

The promise of RCV moving from municipal to statewide use was fulfilled this year in Maine, where voters used RCV in statewide primaries in June and will use it again in the November general election. Overcoming unprecedented pushback by the legislature and election administrators, the elections went off without a hitch.

The success of RCV in Maine has captured the attention of the nation’s largest newspapers and most influential thought leaders, including 

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Economist and, closer to home, the Star Tribune. Political commentator David Brooks has called RCV the “One Reform to Save Democracy.” Renowned Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and business executive Katherine Gehl link America’s declining international economic competitiveness with our declining political competitiveness and name RCV as a necessary reform to reverse this concerning trend.

RCV goes to the root of the problems of our outdated and failing two-party plurality system that has led to an unprecedented era of division, hyper-partisanship and gridlock. It is a very simple and doable change – allowing voters to rank their preferences – with the power to transform our democracy for the better. Elections are more competitive and civil, and winners take office accountable to a broad swath of voters, not just a narrow base. Their re-election depends on their ability to build consensus and make policy decisions on behalf of more voters.

There is growing momentum for RCV across the country, including in Minnesota where the recent DFL primaries made clear the need for RCV. Voters wished they could have ranked their ballots and, in the end, candidates would have had more support heading into the general election.

The evidence is in and it’s time for begin work toward statewide adoption of RCV. The future of our democracy depends on it.