Ranked Choice Voting looms large as Minneapolis Democrats fail to endorse mayoral candidate


A contentious, 12-hour convention Saturday failed to endorse a DFL candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis, increasing the significance of the role that Ranked Choice Voting will play in the November 5 election and giving a crowded field of candidates more room for maneuver.

Left: Candidate Betsy Hodges, with support from Gary Schiff’s campaign, blocked endorsement for Mark Andrew. (Photo courtesy Terry Gydesen, of terrygydesen.com)

More than 1,400 delegates attended the all-day convention which — like all but one of the previous three such events — did not succeed at giving the party’s endorsement to one candidate. The convention dissipated in confusion after four ballots when supporters of progressive candidate Betsy Hodges left the Minneapolis Convention Center, joined by supporters of fellow progressive candidate Gary Schiff. Schiff had withdrawn his name from contention after the second ballot and urged his supporters to join forces with Hodges. The joint tactics by the two City Council members were aimed at blocking an endorsement for former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, who was the favorite of many “old-guard” DFLers and came the closest to winning the 60-percent support necessary for endorsement.

On the fourth ballot, Andrew had about half of the votes, with Hodges trailing behind, at 44 percent. It seemed like a long slog to endorsing Andrew might be under way. But at that point, Hodges and her supporters decamped, supposedly invited to eat pizza outside the convention center, never to return. Their walkout echoed a 2001 walkout led by R.T. Rybak, who blocked an endorsement for incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton and went on to win three terms as mayor (Rybak is not seeking re-election this year). The walkout also appeared to deprive the convention of a quorum, frustrating the Andrew campaign’s efforts to push towards endorsement and causing bitter Andrew supporters to attack the Hodges-Schiff faction which, in combination, outnumbered the Andrew forces. On the second ballot of the day, Hodges and Schiff had a combined 56 percent of the delegate strength, while Andrew had 42 percent. Three other candidates — Don Samuels, Jim Thomas and Jackie Cherryhomes — were dropped from contention after the first ballot when they failed to gain enough support to stay in the race according to the convention rules.

Right: Mayoral candidate Gary Schiff asked supporters to vote for Betsy Hodges, with the tactic helping keep Mark Andrew from winning DFL endorsement. (Photo courtesy Terry Gydesen of terrygydesen.com)

The convention rules committee decided not to use Ranked Choice Voting in the balloting, a decision embraced by all of the candidates, especially Mark Andrew, whose supporters include prominent opponents of the reformed voting method who have said they want to repeal the system — sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting — which was adopted by the city before the 2009 election. RCV didn’t have much impact in that election, with Rybak seeking a third term without strong opposition, and a low voter turnout at the polls.

But with no endorsement in the DFL. a plethora of candidates, including Independent Cam Winton, and a number of other potential candidates waiting in the wings, Ranked Choice Voting now looms large. After making no splash in 2009, the 2013 Minneapolis election may prove to be one of the biggest tests for RCV in the country.

Party endorsements have been losing traction (Gov. Mark Dayton defeated the endorsed DFL candidate for governor in 2010), especially in Minneapolis, where progressive and more conservative factions have clashed for years, often blocking endorsement. Given that background, many DFLers left Saturday’s convention arguing that it was just another ugly DFL brawl and that RCV had not affected the outcome.

But RCV has fundamentally changed the landscape and energized the campaigns of candidates with only an outsider’s chance. Even if RCV had no impact on Saturday’s outcome, it is likely to have a huge impact going forward from the deadlocked convention. RCV means there will be no primary election and that there could be a dozen or more candidates on the non-partisan election ballot in November — meaning it might take vote transfers from among the top three or four finishers before a winner emerges with a majority of preferences. In some ways, RCV meant a DFL endorsement Saturday was theoretically more important than ever. But RCV also helped make it more unlikely than ever.

The top three candidates, Andrew, Hodges and Schiff, all pledged to abide by an endorsement and to drop out if the party endorsed one of the other candidates. But pledging to abide by an endorsement is easy if you don’t believe there will be one. When Schiff threw his support to Hodges after the second ballot (he didn’t have enough votes to go on to the third ballot under convention rules), he made clear to his supporters and to the media that he was not withdrawing from the mayor’s race, but would live to fight for the job through the resurrecting powers of RCV.

Allying his campaign with Hodges’ was a clever tactic, one driven by the two candidates’ mutual admiration for each other (Schiff’s forces distributed a flyer at the convention showing that he and Hodges stood together on progressive issues). But it also reflected the increased importance — in an RCV campaign environment — of preventing Andrew from getting an endorsement. There might have been no endorsement Saturday even if RCV wasn’t on tap. But Saturday showed the development of political alliances, and tactical vote-preference targeting, of the kind that RCV is supposed to produce — the kind of political change that holds a promise of reducing extreme partisanship, fostering consensus-building, and giving voters a wider spectrum of choices.

On those fronts, RCV already can be seen to be making a difference in Minneapolis.

“If the party was united — which it’s not — then endorsement might be important,” says Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, which has led the push for RCV. “But it wasn’t realistic (to expect) there’d be an endorsement. That’s not been happening for many cycles.”

Massey, who served on the rules committee of the convention, says RCV helped bring more candidates into the race, which brought a wider base of delegates, and that many of those delegates — aware that RCV will bring more choices to the November ballot — didn’t want to see the convention reduce those choices. “What’s the point of allowing more choice if we’re going to cut it off now,” Massey says was the attitude of some delegates.

She also cited the “conversion” to RCV of candidate Jackie Cherryhomes, a former City Council member who was eliminated after the first ballot Saturday, but intends to continue her campaign and embraced RCV in her speech to the delegates: With RCV, Cherryhomes said, the candidates have a chance not to run against each other, but to run “for” the people of Minneapolis.

A lot of pizza and politics was still to come after Cherryhomes endorsed RCV and, in the end, the DFL Party of Minneapolis went home as it often does, pissed off and pointing fingers. But concentrating on the party’s failure to endorse misses the big picture:

Ranked Choice Voting is going to get a real test this November, and it already seems to be making a difference.

“Minneapolis is preparing to showcase RCV,” Massey says. “The real show is just beginning.

“Here we go.”

Frontrunner Mark Andrew had the lead but couldn’t capture the endorsement. (Photo courtesy of Terry Gydesen, terrygydesen.com)

Video by Hlee Lee, story by Nick Coleman