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'Instant Runoff' voting reform can empower communities of color

Isaac Peterson, III // Published July 16, 2008 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

There is widespread agreement among analysts that Instant Runoff Voting, or ranked voting, has the potential to significantly empower communities of color by increasing the number of candidates of color who appear on ballots and, presumably, get elected to public office. Minneapolis has approved IRV, but a lawsuit has been filed challenging it, and the St. Paul City Council has balked at putting the measure on the ballot in November. We asked Isaac Peterson III to find out why.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is not a new idea, but it is one that is gaining traction in many areas nationwide. It is a form of “ranked voting” or “single transferable voting” that allows a voter to rank candidates on a ballot in order of preference.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used IRV since 1941. Burlington, Vermont; both Cary and Hendersonville, North Carolina; Takoma Park, Maryland; and San Francisco, California, have since adopted IRV.

Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Springfield, Illinois, use a ranked voting procedure for overseas military voters.

In 2006, voters in Minneapolis passed a measure to implement IRV; it is currently the subject of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Earlier this year, St. Paul voters supplied enough petition signatures to qualify IRV for placement on the November ballot. Late last month, St. Paul’s City Council said “no” by blocking the measure.

Their reasoning was based on a memo supplied by St. Paul City Attorney John Choi. Dated June 18, the memo advised the council that Ramsey County Elections
Manager Joe Mansky had found five areas of concern with instituting IRV:
1) Uncertainty over the legality of IRV;
2) Creation of conflicting voting systems for the School District and the City;
3) Unavailability of voting equipment and increased costs;
4) Lack of any savings from IRV despite claims to the contrary; and
5) Creation of a need for budget changes by the City.

Although many have questioned the legal authority of the city council to override (in a 5-1 vote, with one member being absent) the expressed wishes of the electorate, Choi’s memo advised the council that it had the options of either allowing the ballot measure or blocking it.

However, the memo did emphasize that the council had, under a Minnesota Supreme Court decision, a legitimate need to avoid “a futile election and the total waste of taxpayers’ money.” The memo concluded that the city council does have the authority to block a ballot measure.

Choi also went on to question the constitutionality of IRV, citing an obscure court decision from 1915 and Minnesota’s state constitution.

The court decision, known as Brown vs. Smallwood, knocked down a voting method in Duluth that on its surface might appear to be similar to IRV, but was in fact very different. The method, called “Bucklin,” did use ranked voting, but it used a different method than IRV for counting the votes to determine the winner.

Unlike IRV, which distributes the votes of eliminated candidates equally among the remaining candidates, the Bucklin method added second choices to the first choices. Contrary to the claims in the lawsuit pending in Minneapolis and Choi’s memo, the decision in Brown vs. Smallwood does not appear to apply in the case of IRV, as the method of allocating votes is different.

The Minnesota State Constitution appears to be silent on how to determine the outcome of an election. The decision in Brown vs. Smallwood specifically struck down the Bucklin method, saying that it “directly diminishes the right of an elector to give an effective vote for the candidate of his choice. If he votes for him once, his power to help him is exhausted. If he votes for other candidates, he may harm his choice, but cannot help him. Another elector may vote for three candidates opposed to him.”

The Minnesota State Constitution also appears to be silent on the details of how a municipal election should be conducted. It only provides that every qualified voter be allowed to vote and that all elections shall be held by ballot. IRV has survived court challenges around the country; we were not able to contact by our press deadline any legal expert willing to speculate on the outcome of the Minneapolis court challenge.

Among the benefits claimed by IRV supporters (see adjoining sidebar) is the effect it has on empowering both candidates of color and voters of color. Not many studies have yet been done in areas that already use IRV. The New America Foundation and an organization called FairVote did release the results of a study in June of this year. Quoting from their study of IRV in San Francisco:

“San Francisco is the largest and most diverse American city to hold an IRV election in recent years. The city’s population is 32% Asian American, 7% African American, 14% Latino and 44% white (2006 ACS estimate); a majority of residents aged 25 and older do not have a college degree. San Francisco has administered instant runoff voting in annual elections for numerous local offices since November of 2004. The Public Research Institute at San Francisco

State University conducted exit polls during two IRV elections in this period, as did other groups like the Asian Law Caucus. In addition, FairVote conducted studies based on precinct analysis of ballots for the 2004 and 2005 elections.
The polls of San Francisco voters’ opinions and the precinct analysis of turnout and use of rankings in San Francisco demonstrate that:
• Voters of all races and ethnicities strongly preferred IRV over a two-round runoff system.
• Voters of all races and ethnicities find IRV easy to use.
• IRV increased turnout citywide by 2.7 times, and in the city’s six most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods turnout quadrupled in the 2005 citywide election (the only race studied for impact on voter turnout).
• An overwhelming majority of voters, including minority voters, reported understanding IRV.”

The study went on to note: “This high use of rankings also was found by the Asian Law Caucus’s exit poll survey of the 2006 open seat race in District 4 (one of the city’s most heavily Asian districts). The ALC study found that 82% of Asian Americans ranked two or three candidates on their ballot, compared to 84% of non-Asian Americans. There were clear signs that voters used these rankings effectively. For example, even though voters were limited to three rankings, the race had four strong Asian candidates. Leading Asian organizations split their endorsements among these candidates, raising a fear that Asian American voters would split their preferences in a race against a non-Asian candidate who was popular enough to finish second. But instead, the great majority of Asian voters created an ad hoc Asian coalition by choosing to rank three of the Asian candidates in some order. Indeed, a separate FairVote analysis showed that any one of these three Asian candidates would have defeated the non-Asian candidate in an IRV election because they would have picked up the second and third rankings from the supporters of the other Asian candidates.”