David Eide – Opinion Columnist
As a political science major and someone who is just generally plugged into politics, I’ve been paying very close attention to this year’s session of the Minnesota legislature. This session is especially significant because it represents the first instance of unified governmental control in almost a decade, with the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party having taken full control in the 2022 elections. As a result, they have been able to advance a large amount of legislation such as a state equality bill and a bill to legalize recreational cannabis in the state without any need for Republican support. One particular bill that is moving through the legislature and which has caught my eye is an act to institute ranked choice voting in Minnesota elections. In effect, this bill would make it so that voters can rank their candidate preferences and have it so that their votes would transfer if their first is eliminated; if your first choice doesn’t get enough votes then your specific vote would go to your second choice and so on until a majority is reached. Needless to say, this bill would majorly upend the way Minnesota does elections and I think an in-depth exploration of its many facets is worthwhile to evaluate whether this is a good idea.
First things first, I should probably make an ethics disclosure. Over this last summer, I was a worker with a political campaign that happened to cooperate with FairVote Minnesota, the main organization promoting ranked choice voting in Minnesota, and I personally worked with their staffers on occasion. Now, I had pretty developed opinions on RCV before this summer and my interactions with FairVote Minnesota were ultimately pretty unsubstantial, so I don’t think it would influence any of what I have to say. Overall, I think implementing ranked-choice voting would probably be a net positive for Minnesota voters. While I don’t think it would be the silver bullet that it is often claimed by proponents to be, I think it offers a more nuanced voting experience that will ensure that the candidate who is preferred by the most amount of people is elected, which I think every democracy should strive for.
Of course, this idea is not being proposed in a vacuum and we can look to other implementations of ranked-choice voting in the US to perhaps game out what its effects would be in Minnesota. Alaska and Maine have already switched to RCV for their statewide elections while several cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, have been using RCV for many election cycles; at this point so there’s a wealth of examples to choose from. In the cases of Maine and Alaska, the implementation of RCV has resulted in the victories of candidates such as Jared Golden and Lisa Murkowski, respectively, who had the overall support of a majority of the population but who would have lost if the elections were run under the old system wherein the candidate who gets the most votes without any other consideration wins. Furthermore, in local municipalities, RCV has opened the door to a wider range of political opinions and ensured that there is communication and cooperation between different candidates to ensure that they can receive optimal rankings from each other’s supporters. In effect, RCV in municipal elections allows for the formation of coalitions between candidates who in the past would have likely viciously attacked each other despite sharing many of the same beliefs and goals.
Of course, not everyone is in favor of abandoning the current system and moving to RCV and it is worthwhile to consider some dissenting arguments. A major argument I’ve seen is that the current election system works fine so why take the risk of switching to a new system? I view this as a somewhat fallacious point—just because the current system is functional doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t constantly be trying to improve it. I’ve also seen some people say that the implementation of RCV in Maine and Alaska shows that it wouldn’t really tamper down partisan competition which is a claim often made by RCV proponents. I actually agree with this point as for the most part, in statewide and federal elections the competition is still ultimately between Democrats and Republicans, even if third parties can now have more of an influence on the outcome. However, even if this is the case I don’t think it’s a decisive argument against RCV, as there are many more positives to RCV besides decreasing partisan conflict, such as its ability to build cooperation in municipal elections and ensure that the preferred candidate for the largest number of voters is elected.
I ultimately think most of the debates surrounding RCV in Minnesota are of little use at this point considering that the current bill would only set up an investigative committee to make recommendations for how exactly Minnesota should implement RCV. Once the committees’ recommendations come in, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable discussing the actual merits of RCV in Minnesota. Still, I will probably be in favor of whatever proposal comes out, as I think RCV is just a better way of conducting elections.