The Role of Ranked Choice Voting in 2013

by Rob Richie, Drew Spencer // Published November 29, 2013

If you followed the local elections and the special elections that took place in 2013, you probably heard some stories about ranked choice voting - there has been a wave of positive national press and great new examples of how it works in practice.

Some of the biggest stories came from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis ensured its voters would have a wide breadth of choices for the newly open mayor's seat. Current law allows candidates to pay a fee of only $20 to appear on the ballot, which led to 35 candidates appearing on the ballot. Had voters been restricted to voting by indicating only a single favorite candidate, Minneapolis's mayor almost certainly would have won with a low plurality of the vote; just look at this year's mayoral race in Boston, where the first and second place finishers in the preliminary election received only 18% and 17% of the vote respectively.

Fortunately, Minneapolis uses ranked choice voting, so voters were able to express not only which candidate was their favorite, but also which second-choice and third-choice candidates they thought should win if their first choice did not qualify for an instant runoff. Ranked choice voting meant that candidates competed seriously but also positively, and Minneapolis ultimately elected a candidate who reflected a broad consensus - Betsy Hodges skipped spending money on television ads in favor of grassroots campaigning. She broke from the field by earning more than a third of first-choice rankings and more than 60% among voters who expressed a preference for either her or her strongest opponent. Altogether, she was the first, second or third choice of two-thirds of the voters.

Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly understood and preferred ranked choice voting, according to an exit poll by Edison Research and analysis of the election by FairVote Minnesota. Minneapolis school board member Kim Ellison was among many expressing excitement and pride in the outcome even when their first-choice candidate did not win. In Minneapolis, commentators are noting that the political climate has changed from traditional "machine politics" to coalition politics, in which candidates talk to voters more about issues and policy. A local professor called the 2013 mayoral election a "game changer." In video interviews, voters shed light on how positively ranked choice voting was viewed.

Among those elected to the city council's 13 seats, all by ranked choice voting, are its first Latino, Somali and Hmong Cambodian members. Ranked choice voting was also used for eight additional offices, including five seats elected by the fair representation multi-seat ranked choice method.

Similarly encouraging stories have come out of the other locations using ranked choice voting this year. In St. Paul, a competitive ranked choice election resulted in the election of the first Hmong American to the St. Paul city council, while the incumbent mayor easily defeated three challenges with ranked choice voting, allowing that election to take place in one round instead of two. And FairVote's Andrew Douglas has already written of the positive effects that the fair representation multi-seat ranked choice voting method had in this year's city elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts for nine city council seats and six school committee seats. The Cambridge election resulted in four first-time winners including the council's first Latino member and a 29-year-old Arab American. Takoma Park, Maryland - where FairVote is headquartered - also elected its city offices with ranked choice voting.

There were also two special elections for U.S. Congress in which ranked choice voting played a role for some voters. Louisiana held a special election to fill a vacancy in its fifth congressional district on November 16th. In Louisiana, all candidates run against each other in an open first round, which is followed by a runoff election between only the top two candidates a few weeks later - with this year's runoff between two Republicans. However, the two elections have too short a period of time between them for military and overseas voters to receive and return new ballots. To allow those voters to fully participate, they instead complete a ranked choice ballot before the preliminary election takes place. That way, their ballots can count in the runoff for whichever of their highest ranked candidates remains.

Alabama also held a special election this year on Election Day that used ranked choice ballots for overseas and military voters. There, the partisan primary elections include a runoff election if no candidate receives a majority of votes. With a crowded field of competitors for the Republican nomination, a runoff election was expected - and again overseas voters would not have enough time to receive and return new ballots for the primary runoff. Because federal law requires that such voters not be disenfranchised, a federal court ordered that Alabama allow them to use a ranked choice ballot when voting in the Republican primary - a remedy Alabama itself proposed as a means to allow it to keep a tight schedule for its multiple rounds of elections.

FairVote has written about the use of ranked choice voting for overseas and military voters before. It's a simple reform that helps make runoff elections work better while respecting the votes of absentee voters, and it's very popular with both voters and election administrators. That's why, when the Presidential Voting Commission began its hearings to discuss issues with access to the polls, we submitted testimony advocating for the widespread adoption of this increasingly common reform.

Without the high profile federal races that characterize even-numbered election years, it may seem strange to see so much election news in 2013. However, the expansion of ranked choice voting has brought out optimism and energy among voters - an especially notable development at a time when gridlock and dysfunction in Congress have made cynicism about the American democratic process increasingly pervasive. In response, national news stories have been springing up calling for the use of ranked choice voting, including two strong pieces in Governing Magazine - one by Oregon's former secretary of state Phil Keisling on how ranked choice voting can expand voter access in local elections and another by Lou Jacobson on how ranked choice voting offers the potential to make politics more civil. Strong national commentaries focused on how ranked choice voting can increase opportunities for racial minorities and heal our partisan, ideological divide.

Next year offers more important ranked choice voting elections, including those in the four Bay Area cities that use ranked choice voting and are expected to be highly competitive. Meanwhile, many new jurisdictions are turning to ranked choice voting now with a growing awareness that voting equipment vendors are making the reform easier to implement. If you have questions about bringing ranked choice voting to your community, be sure to contact our team at FairVote!