Don Samuels versus four angry political midgets in an IRV world

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by John Hoff | September 3, 2009 • Instant runoff voting throws some new and interesting twists into this November’s city council race, and some political commentators seem to think the Fifth Ward City Council race will be impacted. Personally, I see the race as “Don Samuels Versus Four Angry Political Midgets” and I don’t think IRV will be a factor. None of the people opposing Don Samuels is particularly impressive, individually or collectively. More on that in a bit.

The Adventures of Johnny Northside: Being the amazing, true-to-life adventures and (very likely) misadventures of a divorced man who seeks to take his education, activism and seemingly boundless energy to the North Side of Minneapolis, to help with a process of turning an arguably-blighted neighborhood into something approaching Urban Utopia. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be near my child. This blog is dedicated to my 12-year-old son Alex, and his dream of studying math and robotics at MIT.


However, trying to anticipate exactly how IRV will impact the race has been a vague mental exercise. Until today, that is. Hawthorne’s Housing Director, Jeff Skrenes, is extremely good with arcane numerical crap. This is a guy who calculates the exact percentage he saved on his grocery store purchases by using coupons. So Jeff came up with some specific scenarios of how IRV might impact the Fifth Ward Race, as follows…

(These words are from Jeff Skrenes, verbatim)

Here’s my understanding of how IRV would work.

Let’s say that nobody gets 50% plus one (and that’s one vote, not one percent) on the first ballot. In this hypothetical situation, the votes break down this way:

Don Samuels 40%
Kenya McKnight 20%
Natalie Johnson Lee 15%
Lennie Chism 14%
Roger Smithrud 11%

I realize this may be generous to one or more of the challengers here (or some may think I’m being generous to Samuels) but I’m illustrating a point.

In this case, nobody got 50% + 1, so Smithrud is eliminated. Everybody who voted for him as their first choice now has their ballots re-examined. If they voted for a second candidate, then their second choice gets the votes when the ballots are counted again. And everybody’s first choice besides the eliminated candidate remains the same.

So if every single Smithrud supporter voted for Samuels as their second choice, then the tally on the second round would look like this:

Samuels 51%
McKnight 20%
Johnson Lee 15%
Chism 14%

And Samuels would be declared the winner.

But let’s assume that Smithrud’s votes are evenly distributed among all candidates. It would then look roughly like this:

Samuels 43%
McKnight 23%
Johnson Lee 18%
Chism 17%

Then Chism would be eliminated, and all of the voters who voted for him would have their second choice counted in the third round. Likewise, anyone who voted for Smithrud as their first choice and Chism as their second choice would have their third choice counted. This process would repeat itself until someone received 50% + 1 votes.

From a political calculus standpoint, the DFL-endorsed incumbent in a DFL-leaning city and district has a head start in terms of votes. But regardless, the system still favors whoever starts out with the most votes.

IRV could help a challenger to Samuels if there are two candidates who finish very strong and everyone else is far behind. Then it doesn’t take too many votes to put the second-place finisher over the top.

In an election with more than two candidates, IRV could help third (and fourth) (and fifth) candidates garner more votes. Someone could say, “I don’t support Samuels, and I really want Lennie Chism to win, but I think Kenya McKnight is the more viable contender.” So they would vote for Lennie as their first choice, and Kenya as the second choice, knowing that if/when Lennie is eliminated, they didn’t “waste” a vote by voting for their favorite candidate. What seems more likely, however, is that the candidate with the most votes after the first round will get enough of the second and third choice votes as other candidates are eliminated.

Here’s another fun possibility: since there are five candidates, it is at least remotely possible that the bottom three vote-getters will split enough amongst themselves that the top two candidates still do not have a simple majority. So let’s say that every single Johnson, Chism, and Smithrud supporter voted ONLY for Johnson, Chism, or Smithrud as their top choices, and neither Samuels nor McKnight won a 50% + 1 tally. I THINK at that point, the person with the most total votes would win, but I’d have to check for sure.

Well, this wasn’t as fun as, say, explaining the intricacies of how to calculate a prepayment penalty on an ARM loan indexed to the LIBOR rate, but it did get pretty geeky.

(End of explanation by Jeff Skrenes)

Thanks Jeff. Intricacies of IRV aside, there are only two choices in this race: Don Samuels or the angry wannabes, what I call the “four political midgets.” (Jeff is not responsible for the following analysis) 

ANGRY MIDGET NUMBER ONE: Natalie Johnson-Lee was involved in one of the nastiest, dirtiest campaigns in the history of the City of Minneapolis and yet still couldn’t beat Don Samuels in what used to be her own ward before redistricting. She jumped in at the last minute and–to make matters more confusing–her old campaign manager, Jerry Moore, now appears to be associated with Kenya McKnight. (Click here for some documentation of that)

I’m told on good authority that Johnson-Lee used to have Mary Kay and Tupperware parties in her council office and would sit and pay her bills while on the city council dais. Well, one can’t fault the last part too much. Certain members of the Jordan Area Community Council “Old Majority” would certainly benefit from the bill-paying example.

ANGRY MIDGET NUMBER TWO: Kenya McKnight. A couple weeks ago, I was at Farview Park and I saw Kenya McKnight keeping company with perennial also-ran James Everett. When I pointed my camera in her direction to get a stock photo, McKnight actually stepped behind some people to avoid my camera.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her do this, she did the same thing during the Broadway Art FLOW. (And she was hanging around with perpetual loser James Everett then, too)

What kind of political candidate doesn’t want her PICTURE taken? Is she afraid the camera will steal her soul? (Editorial remark by Chipper The Entrepreneurial Squirrel: Maybe she’s afraid somebody will steal her nuts, but Kenya’s nuts aren’t the kind you can steal)

ANGRY MIDGET NUMBER THREE: Lennie “The Heckler” Chism, also known as “Uncle Lennie” since his bargain basement purchase of the old Uncle Bill’s store. Lennie is the kind of guy who buys a vacant building scheduled for demolition and then tries to make it seem like political oppression when the city wants to move forward with tearing down the building. In this way, Lennie’s kind of like Mayoral Candidate Al “I Am The Community” Flowers pissing and moaning about having to pay his utility bill like everybody else.

Like, oh, look at me! I’m oppressed, I have to PAY MY WATER BILL!

ANGRY MIDGET NUMBER FOUR: Roger Smithrud is the midget of the midgets. He even physically resembles a garden gnome. But at least Smithrud will stand still to have his picture taken instead of acting like a movie star being chased by paparazzi, like, oh, it’s so invasive HAVING MY PICTURE TAKEN when I’m RUNNING FOR POLITICAL OFFICE.

Smithrud claims he once supported Don Samuels. Well, something seems to have changed after Samuels was in favor of tearing down a crappy apartment building owned by Smithrud’s brother. So Smithrud is an angry midget, but his anger appears to stem from a different source than the other three anti-Samuels candidates, something more right wing and rooted in property rights fanaticism.

Jeff Skrenes is much better at political predictions than I am–at least to the tune of $2 in wagers–but I have a wager going with Don Allen for a dinner at the Monte Carlo that Don Samuels will win the race. Personally, I think Samuels will win by racking up more than 50 percent of the vote on the first round. Each of the “political midgets” is a small, tragic character and each of them makes Samuels appear an even better choice. (And he’s already a great councilman or, as Kenya McKnight would put it, a very very very good councilman)

So that’s my call. Samuels by more than 50 percent on the first round, and who gives a rip about IRV?