Wait a minute, you might say, these negative campaigns are brought to us by the plurality voting system? I thought they were the fault of billionaire activists with Super PACs trying to buy elections? Or the political parties? Or campaign strategists?
Yes, all bear some responsibility. But they wouldnt have the chance to muck up our political and civic life so badly if we didnt let them. Were treated to all of this awfulness because were still using a voting system that cultivates and basically guarantees this kind of nonsense. Its called plurality voting. Nearly all our elections are now this way: Candidate A against Candidate B, and the one with the most votes wins even if its not a majority. As a result, weary 8th District voters are faced with what the News Tribune is calling another expensive mud fight.
In the plurality voting system it makes sense to deploy negative attacks, to rip your opponent to shreds and make him or her look as horrific and incompetent as possible. You do this instead of discussing substantive issues and your own positions on them because it works. Its sad but true. Competitive elections, like the one were seeing right now in the 8th District, primarily are decided not by who the electorate is voting for but who theyre voting against. Candidates cant worry about voters disgust and disenchantment with the process when their only focus is getting a zealous base to the polls and convincing undecided voters that their opponent is a monster.
Most of us loathe this state of affairs, but weve normalized it. The wedge issues, the nasty ads, the scaremongering, it has become so routine we accept it as an immutable fact of life.
Its not. Theres a better way to run elections, and its proven to work: ranked choice voting. Ranked-choice voting offers voters more choice by leveling the playing field and giving third-party candidates a real chance at capturing votes. Under ranked-choice voting, you win by earning a majority of the electorates support in a competitive field. Negative ads arent just ineffective; they can cost you second- and third-choice votes. Candidates must focus on issues, discuss their positions, find common ground, and talk positively about what they bring to the table.
This is exactly what happened in the open, competitive, multicandidate Minneapolis mayoral race last year: Candidates behaved like grownups, and voters benefitted from a rich, substantive discussion that ended in a consensus outcome.
The Twin Cities are demonstrating that ranked-choice voting works, that its not that difficult to implement, and that its benefits are well worth the effort. And theyre inspiring other Minnesota cities, including Duluth, to give it thoughtful consideration. A diverse coalition of community activists at Rank Your Vote Duluth (rankyourvote.org) is working to educate Northland voters about ranked-choice votings capacity to transform local elections for the better. Ranked-choice voting also is picking up steam around Minnesota, from Red Wing to Rochester to Crystal, and around the country, in cities on the West Coast and East Coast.
As we endure the final days of the 8th District melee, lets imagine something different. Lets envision using ranked-choice voting for statewide and congressional races as well as local ones. Lets envision campaigns drawing meaningful distinctions without eviscerating their opponents. And then lets work toward making it a reality. We deserve better than multimillion-dollar mud fights.
Wy Spano is the founder and co-director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.