As we reported yesterday, Election Day 2017 featured several high profile ranked choice voting elections in cities and towns. Altogether, more than 200,000 voters ranked their choices in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Cambridge, Mass. and Takoma Park, Md in cities with a total population of about 844,500. Voters had real, meaningful choices, and could honestly rank those choices without needed to consider strategically how others would vote.
Yesterday made one thing clear: ranked choice voting can help foster a healthy political environment with competitive elections and high voter turnout.
Prior to 2017, our research has conclusively shown that RCV improves turnout compared to two-round, primary/runoff systems by eliminating the steep drop in turnout between rounds of voting: one election, not two. However, the data was too limited on the impact of RCV on turnout in the general election alone. A thorough look at election data from across many elections showed that RCV did not impact turnout significantly. Meanwhile, one researcher applied a particularly flawed methodology to a much smaller sample of elections in order to find that RCV hurt turnout. We attempted to demonstrate the flaws of this research, but it nonetheless created a persistent myth that RCV somehow deterred voters from coming to the polls.
Fortunately, the 2017 election has exposed that myth: voters came out to vote at remarkably high rates in every city with ranked choice voting, flying in the face of a decades-long pattern of turnout dropping in municipal-level elections across the nation.
In Minneapolis, about 43 percent of registered voters voted in 2017, up from 33 percent in 2013, a very strong showing for a local, off-year election. As Minneapolis City Clerk, Casey Carl put it, “That’s a really good turnout. That’s on par with 2014 midterm elections. … People are turning out everywhere throughout the city.” The election featured a competitive race between the incumbent mayor, Betsy Hodges, and two serious competitors, Jacob Frey and Tom Hoch; it also resulted in the election of Minneapolis’s first transgender city councilmember. More voters cast ballots in the mayoral race than in any prior mayoral race in Minneapolis for at least the last 20 years.
In St. Paul, turnout was highest in at least two decades. Prior to the election, an opponent of ranked choice voting openly mocked Ramsey County Elections Director Joe Mansky as an “eternal optimist” for expecting 58,000 voters to come out and vote, claiming that high turnout had been abandoned with St. Paul’s prior system, in which 59,235 voters participated in 2001 and 59,154 voted in 2005 before plunging to 34,411 in 2009 and 31,175 in 2013. The number of voters ranking their choices in 2017 in fact exceeds 61,600 -- 39 percent of registered voters in the city (the number may increase as provisional and other ballots are counted).
St. Paul’s first open seat mayoral election saw greater turnout than the contested mayoral elections under the prior system. It appears the election will be decided on the first count, with rising star Melvin Carter being ranked first on a majority of ballots to become St Paul’s first African American mayor. A veteran St. Paul reporter wrote yesterday about how substantive the campaign had been, with each of the 10 candidates bringing something important to the debate.
In Cambridge, about 32 percent of registered voters voted in 2017, a sizeable increase from its 2015 elections, and affected in part by the number of student voters who are less likely to participate in local elections than national ones. With only six incumbents seeking re-election for the city council’s nine seats, the election demonstrated how RCV elections can accommodate significant competition in a positive, issue-oriented campaign. The odds are that once again, at least 95 percent of voters will have ranked a winner in their top three rankings despite the large field.
Takoma Park has not published voter turnout statistics at press time, though city clerk Jessie Carpenter did report that in Ward 2, which was the only race with a three-candidate contest, turnout reached a record-high of 40 percent of registered voters. We will update this report with more information as it becomes available.
Opponents of ranked choice voting sometimes attempt to make ranking candidates seem like a daunting task. It is not -- it is empowering and literally as easy as 1-2-3 to cast a smart, effective ballot. Ranking choices is a natural way of understanding our preferences, in and out of politics, and Americans rank things in order all the time. And the system encourages candidates to reach out and engage with more voters to earn a ranking from voters, so both candidates and voters end up learning more about their choices, their government and their community..
When it comes to voting and elections, we deserve to have choices, and we deserve better than the artificial limitation of only a single choice in our political world of complex overlapping ideas and coalitions. It should therefore be no surprise that when voters have the opportunity to rank their choices, they turn out and make themselves heard.