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My Point of View: Ranked choice voting would help reduce polarization

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Have you ever wanted to vote for a candidate but felt like it was equivalent to throwing your vote away? Or that voting for your favorite candidate would inadvertently help a candidate whom you liked the least? It’s a conundrum we can work around with a pragmatic solution called ranked choice voting (RCV).

Five cities in the state of Minnesota will use RCV for their local elections this year: St. Paul, Minneapolis, Bloomington, St. Louis Park and Minnetonka. Because they have off-year elections, these cities had the leeway to pass local ballot measures to make this possible.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

What is RCV?

RCV is a way for voters to have more choice without giving up their voice. Voters can rank candidates in order of preference rather than just choosing one. If one candidate wins over 50% of the vote for an office outright, they are the automatic winner. If not, the people who voted for the lowest performing candidate will have their vote re-allocated to their second choice.

Each round will eliminate the lowest performing candidate and distribute their voters’ next preferences to the remaining candidates until one candidate reaches the majority threshold. In a multi-seat race like school board elections, the process continues until all seats are filled.

In other countries, RCV also goes by names like instant-runoff voting, alternative voting and preferential voting. It may sound complicated if you aren’t familiar with the concept, but the vast majority of people who have RCV think it’s easy to use.

What are the advantages of RCV?

The best part of RCV is that the winner of an election must win majority support. In both our 1st District congressional race and our state senate District 27 race in 2020, neither Jim Hagedorn nor Gene Dornink won a majority of votes. They both won with a plurality of votes due to third party candidates Bill Rood and Tyler Becvar.

In the case of voters who chose Tyler Becvar of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, they inadvertently made it less likely that marijuana legalization will pass the state senate because Dornink’s win helped secure a narrow GOP majority. Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has blocked marijuana legalization legislation in the Senate that has already passed the DFL-controlled Minnesota house.

Third party candidates have little chance of winning in a system like ours, but RCV makes it possible for third party candidates to advance their issue or issues without playing a spoiler role. This is my favorite part of RCV because I often lean toward third party candidates but seldom feel I can safely vote for them without endangering my wider priorities.

Related to this, another reason to use RCV is that it may increase voter turnout. People know that their choice matters even if their first preference has slim support. In our current system, people who favor third party candidates may sit out elections because their candidate has no viable chance of winning, and they feel their effort would be wasted.

It also makes it useful for candidates who spot a rival politician’s sign in someone’s yard to still go to the door, and say, “I see you favor so-and-so, here is why I hope you consider making me your second choice.”

In these ways, the hazardous impacts of polarization and apathy to the functioning of our democracy may be reduced.

How do we get RCV here?

Only charter cities with odd-year elections in Minnesota can currently choose RCV. For most cities to be able to use RCV, including Albert Lea, the state Legislature will have to pass the Local Options Bill. That would allow all cities, school districts, townships and counties to use RCV if they want to. Again, it’s not a mandate, it just makes the choice available.

Local ballots can simultaneously accommodate both RCV and non-RCV races, so a school district could decide to use RCV even if a city and county with races on the same ballot do not.

RCV is one practical way to help solve the problem of gridlock, which has been eroding our democracy and our faith in its ability to serve the common good. Please ask your city councilor, school board members and county commissioner to pass a resolution for supporting local control for local elections. Make ranked choice voting an option here.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.

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