Minneapolis, St. Paul: A tale of two cities in Ranked Choice Voting

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The mayoral elections in Minneapolis and St Paul could not have been any different. One was loud and unscripted the other peaceful and predictable. Both spoke to the character of the two cities and what they mean for their futures. Minneapolis’ election was a generation changer preparing the city for the future while in St Paul it was an endorsement of the status quo holding the city in the past. But in both cases, ranked choice voting (RCV) successfully did its job.

Critics were wrong when it came to RCV. With RCV and 35 mayoral candidates in Minneapolis, skeptics contended that voters would not be smart enough or overwhelmed in their ability to process the information needed to make intelligent choices. There were worries of spoiled ballots, disenfranchisement of the poor and people of color, or widespread dissatisfaction with RCV. That did not happen. Why?

Minneapolis learned from experience. Four years when Minneapolis first used RCV I was asked by the City Elections Department to evaluate implementation of the new voting method. My report’s biggest concern was evidence of some voter confusion but the recommendation was better voter education. The City responded with a great voter education program that this election significantly reduced voter error and spoiled ballots. Moreover, in St Paul, part of why the election ran without a hitch is that they too learned from the 2009 Minneapolis experiences. For critics of government who say it cannot learn, Minneapolis and St Paul did and the results paid off.

Voters in Minneapolis learned how to adjust to 35 candidates on the ballot. The top six candidates received nearly 90% of the total votes cast. Voters demonstrated a capacity to gather information and select candidates whom they preferred and were deemed viable. Moreover, worries that voters would select only vanity candidates and not vote for someone who was one of the finalists also seemed largely negligible. In short, the theoretical and hypothetical worries that the election system would break down did not occur. As a bonus, the Minneapolis experience confirmed a trend from around the country–RCV discourages attacks on opponents, more civil campaigns, and the potential for more cooperation during and perhaps after elections.

This is not to say that there were no flaws in Minneapolis’s elections. For one, ballot access is too easy in that city and it needs to change. Currently Andrew Jackson ($20) gets you on the ballot. The Charter Commission is talking of raising that to $500. That is the wrong direction to go. The US Supreme Court has ruled that excessive ballot fees unconstitutionally discriminate against the poor. A better option is a minimum number of signatures to appear on the ballot. Most races call for either paying of a fee or filing of signatures. A $500 fee really does not demonstrate a showing of support. A rich candidate could afford that fee easily or raise it from friends. Signatures are a better sign of commitment. A requirement of 500 signatures to appear on the ballot would have eliminated (based on election night returns) 25 of the candidates from appearing on the ballot. Thus, a filing fee of $500 or 500 signatures seems a better way to assure some minimal showing of support to appear on the ballot.

Additionally, the City needs a better protocol for eliminating and counting candidates who have no mathematical chance of winning. Changing ballot access rules may solve that, but the two days of counting after Tuesday did some damage to RCV. Tuesday night it was obvious to me when the final results were in that mathematically the bottom 29 or 30 candidates had no chance of winning. Had the City simply transferred their votes on Wednesday morning then the race results would have been final by lunch time that day. Finally, high percentage of “exhausted votes” does lend an appearance that some votes were not counted. They were counted, at least the first choices were, and perhaps second and third too, but the fact that they were not counted in the final vote lends to impressions that must be addressed in the future. Again, new ballot access rules may address this or perhaps allowing for more ranking, as they did in St Paul. For now, RCV haters will latch on to exhausted ballots as a major flaw with the voting system. Overall, we need to distinguish between ballot access rules, ballot casting rules, and ballot counting rules we evaluating elections.

Beyond RCV, the elections in the two cities spoke hugely of their futures and characters. Minneapolis’s election was about a generational change. It was the older DFL being replaced by a new generation of Democrats. The old labor-led, white establishment DFL lined up behind Mark Andrew while the new demographics of a racially and politically changing city behind Hodges. Andrew was like Frank Skeffington–Edwin O’Connor’s fictional old line Democrat mayor in The Last Hurrah who loses a reelection bid because he does not realize times have changed and he has not. Andrew is a solid and noble DFLer, but he is old school at a time when Minneapolis is changing. With Hodges as mayor and seven new council members Minneapolis is set for the shift to the future with a new agenda for a new constituency. If Obama in 2008 represented the transition from Baby Boomer to Gen X and Millennial politics at the national level, this is what happened on Tuesday in Minneapolis.

Not so in St Paul. Chris Coleman is perhaps the last mayor of the old St Paul DFL. He is part of the old Irish Catholic DFL constituency that his father represented. He represents the past of an insular city DFL party that still controls the city with many council members still playing old school politics. . It is the coalition of traditional labor unions and party insiders. It is the politics of downtown ballpark stadiums and public subsidies for economic development projects. Coleman does not really have an agenda for the future. He is like Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate–elected but asking the question “What do we do now?” Coleman is the mayor of Baby Boomers seeking to hang on one more time. Minneapolis’s DFL party is more robust and diverse, St. Paul’s is neither. The St Paul DFL is too monolithic and power, and thereby sloppy in what it believes and who it lets in and what it considers to be Democrat politics. There needs to be real competition in St Paul politics, either inside or outside the DFL, but it is not there.

In some ways, the people of both cities got what they wanted, or at least elected mayors suited to their personalities. Minneapolis is the hip, cool, and forward city looking to the future. St Paul is more stodgy, less prone to change, and more stuck in tradition than its sister across the Mississippi. The mayoral elections represent a tale of two cities and a contrast in the way they handled changing generational politics.

This blog originally appeared in an earlier form as a Minnpost Community Voice on November 7, 2013