Editor’s note: Sightline asked a Seattle reporter, Erica Barnett, and a St. Paul reporter, Peter Callaghan, to describe how the mayoral elections are going in each city. I (Kristin) used information from their reports to help answer the questions below.
In 2017, Seattle, Washington, and St. Paul, Minnesota, are both electing new mayors from crowded fields of candidates. Seattle saw a fierce fight leading up to the top-two primary in August and now general election voters will choose between just two candidates on the November ballot. St. Paul has no primary and instead lets voters rank the candidates in the general election race. Voters in St. Paul will rank ten candidates on the November ballot, and their rankings will allow the vote-counting machines to simulate a primary and runoffs to narrow the field until one candidate wins with a majority of participating votes.
Seattleites are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to amend Seattle’s charter to use ranked choice voting (RCV), like St. Paul and a dozen other American cities. Minnesota allowed Minneapolis and St. Paul to modernize their city elections, but unfortunately, Washington state law prohibits Seattle and other charter cities from doing the same. To comply with state law, the Seattle initiative calls for ranked ballots to select the top two in the primary, rather than eliminating the primary as St. Paul did. But the the proposed charter amendment also includes a provision that would automatically eliminate the city’s primary and switch to ranked voting in the general election if state law changes to allow it.
How has RCV shaped the the mayoral race in St. Paul compared with Seattle?
RCV gives general election voters more choices without fear of vote splitting
In August, Seattle’s top two primary narrowed the field from 21 to two, so voters will see just two choices on the November ballot: Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan.
St. Paul doesn’t hold a primary, so voters will vote on ten candidates in November.
Even with so many options, St. Paul residents won’t have to worry about splitting the vote. Dai Thao, Melvin Carter, Pat Harris, and Tom Goldstein all competed for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party’s endorsement. In a top-two primary like Seattle’s, those four ideologically aligned candidates might split the vote, dashing all their hopes and allowing two more conservative candidates to be the only options on the general ballot. But in St. Paul, a DFL voter can rank Dai first, Melvin second, Pat third and so on, knowing her vote will eventually land on the most popular of the similar candidates, rather than getting “thrown away” if her one favorite candidate gets eliminated.
No primaries means more power to the people, especially people of color
Across the United States, about half as many voters vote in primaries as in general elections. Seattle has slightly better numbers, but still, in the August 2015 primary, only about 120,000 Seattle voters participated, while about 170,000 participated in the November 2015 general election. Eliminating the primary in Seattle would give tens of thousands more voters a chance to weigh in on mayoral candidates. Primary voters are much whiter than general election voters, so eliminating the primary can give more voice to people of color.
Eliminating the primary in Seattle would give tens of thousands more voters a chance to weigh in on mayoral candidates.
Ellen Brown, who chaired the campaign to implement RCV in St. Paul points out that eliminating the primary and using RCV in the general “is especially key for communities of color who are even more underrepresented in primaries than in general elections than the population at large.” Not needing to win an official party endorsement might also help more people of color run for office. Nekima Levy-Pounds, an African-American woman who has been active in the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement is running for mayor in Minneapolis’s RCV election. She said that with RCV, “there is simply no need for a [major party] endorsement process anymore. [RCV] is much more democratic, it’s open to the voices of the people and you get to choose from the best candidates, not just those who won the DFL beauty contest.”
But are more choices in the general a good idea?
Chuck Repke, a passionate opponent of RCV in St. Paul, argues that the broad field confuses low-information voters and gives well-educated voters an edge as they can study up on multiple candidates. “In Seattle, for the next 10 weeks, voters will be able to compare and contrast the two candidates. In St. Paul, we haven’t had a primary and if you asked 90 percent of the registered voters ‘who is running,’ they’d be hard pressed to name any of them. It’s that difficult to get visibility.”
Repke opines that, if it is hard to convince Americans to vote when they can only choose one candidate, it will be harder to convince them to vote when they have the option to rank multiple candidates. “When you’re trying to convince someone at the door to get up off their tush and go vote when they’re not interested and now you have to tell them to vote for three people for mayor,” Repke said. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds to a real human being?”
Seattle political consultant Ben Anderstone supports RCV but agrees with Repke on this point. “Most people don’t spend the months leading up to the election rigorously figuring out who their third versus their fourth preference in a city council race is. One concern is that it would increase the number of people who stopped voting down the ballot,” because it’s harder for a voter to figure out, for example, which six of the ten mayoral candidates she prefers and in what order than to just pick one of two candidates.
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Anderstone points out that if Pierce County had used a top two primary in 2008, Dale Washam’s leading opponent could have used the fall to educate voters on how “crazy” Washam was. (In his brief time in office, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, Washam “retaliated against employees, wasted government resources and abused his power.”)
RCV campaigns are more civil and inclusive
Cindy Black, executive director of the Seattle advocacy group Fix Democracy First which is sponsoring the initiative to use RCV in Seattle, points out that RCV disincentivizes negative campaigns. “If you’re engaged in negative campaigning, you’re going to totally alienate supporters of that [second-choice] candidate, but if you’re respectful and your issues align with them in some ways, you’re apt to pick up more votes for second place. It behooves candidates to be more respectful of their opponents and their opponents’ supporters.” In Seattle, for example, frontrunner Jenny Durkan might have thought twice about describing her opponent Cary Moon’s proposal to tax non-resident property buyers as “discriminatory and illegal.” And Moon, in turn, might have hesitated before denouncing her opponent as an establishment candidate beholden to “big business interests” and bragging that she failed to receive the endorsement of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Rebecca Noecker, who ran in a 2015 RCV race for the St. Paul city council, experienced first-hand the way RCV encouraged her to connect with more voters. “I door knocked a number of people who had signs up for my opponent,” she said. Would they consider making her their second choice? she said she asked them on the stoop. “The conversation didn’t have to stop because they had already pledged to someone else.” Minneapolis also uses RCV, and Mayor Betsy Hodges also reached out to voters who preferred another candidate, asking them to make her their second or third choice. (Watch her explain in this video.)
Although anecdotal evidence as well as rigorous study shows that RCV produces more civil campaigns, not everyone thinks so. Mark Andrew, who lost the 2013 RCV race for Minneapolis Mayor to Betsy Hodges, says “It’s very civil at the surface but underground it’s very nasty.” He was perceived as the frontrunner in the race, and he said all the other candidates targeted him. The other campaigns didn’t directly attack him in ads or in public forums, but he says surrogates attacked him in email and Twitter campaigns.
Voters like RCV
In both St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, voters have tried RCV and liked it. A 2015 Edison Research exit poll among St. Paul Ward 2 voters showed that 70 percent wanted to continue using RCV, 73 percent ranked at least two candidates, and 83 percent found RCV simple to use. Of those 690 voters polled, 82 percent reported being “very” or “somewhat” familiar with the method before arriving at the polls.
Edison’s 2013 citywide exit poll in Minneapolis of 2,453 voters showed similar results with 68 percent wanting it used in future elections and 61 percent saying they would like it used for state elections as well. Of voters with college educations, 88 percent found the method simple to use. Of those without college degrees, 81 percent said it was simple to use.
RCV doesn’t fix everything
Andrew, who lost the 2013 RCV mayoral race in Minneapolis, said “I was promised that it would increase voter turnout, I was promised that it would encourage communities of color and diverse communities to get out there and vote. … In point of fact, it didn’t do any of those things.”
Andrew’s disappointment points out an important lesson for electoral reformers: be clear about what your reform does and doesn’t do. Overpromising can lead to disappointment and repeal, so advocates would be wise to stick to touting RCV’s proven benefits:
- It defeats vote splitting.
- It gives general election voters more voice. General election voters are more reflective of the general population than are primary voters, who tend to be older, whiter, and more partisan.
- If it eliminates a primary and the jurisdiction had to pay for the primary, it can save money.
- It tamps down negative campaigns. RCV does not necessarily increase voter turnout, and it does not, by itself, get more people of color out to vote in the general election. But if RCV eliminates a primary, it boosts the voices of people of color because they turn out to vote at higher rates in the general election than in the primary. And if RCV empowers a candidate of color outside the establishment norm, perhaps a candidate like Nekima Levy-Pounds, to run, that candidate might run a campaign that energizes more voters of color.
Seattle could try RCV
St. Paul—along with Minneapolis and a dozen other American jurisdictions—may be onto something. Although Seattle’s state law-constrained proposal of using RCV in the top-two primary wouldn’t yield the benefits that St. Paul has seen of giving more voice to people, especially people of color, who vote in the general but not in the primary, it would defeat vote splitting in the primary and encourage more civil campaigns. And if Olympia allows Washington charter cities and counties choose how they elect their local officials, Seattleites could see more choices on the general ballot.
Explaining how to mark your RCV ballot will be a major challenge, especially for “low information” voters. First will be to disabuse voters of the need to make every choice possible. For example in our last mayoral primary, most voters would not want their ballot to be counted for many of the fringe candidates — so they would exclude those candidates in their ranking.
Given the dynamics of our August mayoral primary, I expect most voters would have confined their rankings to the 6 credible candidates and ignored the rest. It would be interesting to know the experience in St. Paul — how many ballots got reassigned more than 5 or 6 times before becoming exhausted.
Lastly, let’s have an article on Cambridge MA, which has elected their City Council by RCV for many years. Their program is different; they are not electing individual officials but a 9-member body. All candidates run on one ballot and voters mark their rankings; ballot counting stops when the top 9 candidates are determined. In Cambridge, RCV results in Proportional Representation on City Council.
With RCV two features are essential: ranked veto for any or all candidates: a veto will cancel equivalent vote(s), and NOTA, None of the above. If NOTA wins, all the candidates will be disqualified from all future elections to that office.
Instant Runoff Voting mitigates vote splitting, but does not eliminate it. E.g. in the 2009 IRV mayoral race in Burlington, VT, the Republican split votes with the Democrat, causing the Progressive to win even though the Democrat would have steamrolled the Progressive in a two-person race.
As for saving money, a voting methods expert named Warren Smith offers another perspective:
Yes, one round is cheaper and easier than two, but with IRV, that one round is more complicated and it cannot be done on ordinary “dumb totalizing” voting machines, whereas both rounds in delayed runoff can be done with such machines; and IRV is non-additive (no such thing as “precinct subtotals”) and non-monotonic; and the second round in delayed runoff often does not happen. (Top-two runoff also is non-monotonic, but each of its two rounds, in isolation, of course is monotonic.) In view of those facts, it is not at all clear to us that IRV actually saves money. And in any event, the money spent on elections is negligible compared to other government expenditures, so it is more important to get quality in elections, than to save money. Thus “saving” money would be a false economy that surely would actually cost more in bad government than it saved in election expenditures. For example (2006), a pro-IRV group was recently arguing that Oakland California should switch to IRV because each runoff election under the old delayed-runoff scheme cost Oakland “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” which was their way of saying $200,000. However, they did not mention that Oakland’s annual budget is over $1 billion so that the “cost savings” they were lobbying for was of order 0.02% fractionally. Surely there are superior ways to save Oakland’s money! Also they did not mention that it cost (neighboring, comparable size) San Francisco $1,600,000 to upgrade its voting machines to run IRV two years before. So the payback time required to justify this cost “savings,” as you can see, would be very large, perhaps 30-40 years assuming elections every 2 years and runoffs required half the time. Quite probably Oakland would be re-replacing its machines before that time, in which case the costs never would be repaid.
Ranked Choice Voting makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately people are often suspicious about changes that appear at first look more complicated (actually avoiding primaries makes RCV simpler) so it may take a few years for enough voters to get comfortable with the idea. Hopefully Sightline, specifically Kristin Eberhard, will keep this idea on our radar screens until its advantages become obvious. Then we’ll wonder why RCV wasn’t adopted much earlier.