Race, class and Ranked Choice Voting: Why the Jacobs-Miller study is largely irrelevant

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Race and class structurally divide the United States. Economically we live in two nations separate but unequal, with political power and privilege fractured along this divide. Thus it comes as no surprise that Professors Larry Jacobs and Joanne Miller recently found that the use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) by voters in the 2013 Minneapolis elections largely tracked this class and racial divide. Conceding that their statistics are largely correct, their analysis and conclusions are largely irrelevant to the debate about RCV, voting, or political power in Minneapolis or the United States.

First, there is no debate that race and class divide America. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office study found that the after-tax income gap (and this includes after calculating in transfers payments and welfare) between the top 1% of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1979. Between 1973 and 2007, after-tax income for the top 1% increased by 275%. For the bottom quintile it was merely 18%, while for middle class or middle three quintiles it increased by not quite 40%. According to the Census Bureau, the median family income fell in 2012 from $51,100 to $51,017, with the average American earning less now than they did in real dollars in 1989. However, there is some good news. Since 2009, the income of the wealthiest 1% has increased by 31%.

But income only tells part of the story. Maldistributions in wealth are exacerbating and growing. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the top 1% controls almost 34% of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3% in 2007. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Since 2007 the wealth gap has increased as the value of American homes–the single largest source of wealth for most Americans– has eroded. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.

According to an April 2013 Pew Research Center report titled “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%,” since the crash of 2008 the “mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.” The richest have recovered nicely from the Great Recession, the rest of us have not done so well. Moreover, the income gap has a racial component. A recent Census Bureau report stated that in 2012 the median household income for Whites was $57,009, for Hispanics it was $39,005 and for Blacks it was $33,321.

The wealth disparities across race were even worse. A policy brief from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that over the last 25 years, the wealth gap between African-Americans and Whites tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. For the few African-Americans and Whites at the same income level, the latter had wealth at least three if not more times that of the former.

Repeatedly, the evidence suggests that we remain as racially divided today as we were 60 years ago when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. The Board of Education decision supposedly desegregated America’s schools and launched a civil right revolution. Books as American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton and Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City by Paul Jargowsky document the racial segregation of contemporary America, and Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal describe the contrasting social worlds of America. Closer to home, it was 20 years ago while I was working with john powell at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty that we documented Minneapolis as one of the three most racially segregated cities in America.

The economic and social forces that divide America have long been known to politically allocate power. As I point out in my new book Election Law and Democratic Theory, political scientists since the 1950s in books such as the American Voter by Angus Campbell, The New American Voter by Warren Miller and Merrill Shanks, The American Voter Revisited by Michael Lewis-Beck, and The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy by Kay Lehman Schlozman, all point to the racial and class divide in terms of who votes or participates in America, using the electoral systems replaced by RCV and which Jacobs and Miller seem to endorse. Furthermore, E.E. Schattschneider’s The Semi-sovereign People, Theodore J. Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, Grant McConnell’s, Private Power and American Democracy, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets, and Robert Dahl’s Democracy and Critics are classic books by noted political scientists documenting over the last 50 years the class and often racial bias in our political system.

So what is the point? No voting system, whether it be RCV or the old one that it replaced in Minneapolis is going to rectify or mitigate the racial-class inequities that already exist in this country. To conclude as Jacobs and Miller did that RCV “leaves open the well-documented voting gap” and reveals “differences in participation between communities of color and the poor vs. their white and affluent counterparts” (quoting from their February 13, 2014 Star Tribune commentary) largely misses the point. That voting gap existed before the implementation of RCV and there is no indication that the system it replaced did anything to ameliorate the gap either. Their study seems to imply causality-RCV caused the voting gap–or it begs the question–the voting gap already existed and it now still exists–or RCV was supposed to address the voting gap but it did not. Jacobs and Miller deserve credit for pointing out that a there is a class and racial gap in voting in Minneapolis, but that is nothing new or novel in terms of their conclusion. Nor is their argument that more education is necessary to teach people how to use RCV. I largely said that four years ago in the initial study of RCV in Minneapolis.

Finally, the Jacobs-Miller study uses the wrong baseline for assessing RCV. They point to the low participation rates among the poor and people of color in the 2013 Minneapolis elections as a flaw with RCV. But compared to what, the turnout in other general elections or in primaries? If we compare to primaries the turnout was much greater where with the former a small band of white affluents or party insiders dominant the selection process. If we compare to other general elections then it is not so clear that their results are statistically significant, especially based on one election.

RCV is not a panacea for all which ails American democracy. The core issue is how class, race, and to some extent gender allocate political power and influence in the United States. RCV cannot fix these structural inequalities but it certainly did not cause them as the Jacobs and Miller study seems to imply.