Ranked-choice voting empowers student voters

by Mike Griffin - FairVote Minnesota

Historically, off-year elections in Minneapolis have had very little student participation. In the last few municipal elections in Minneapolis, University of Minnesota precincts had the lowest turnout rates in the entire city. I have been an organizer at the University for years, and students have told me many times why they choose not to participate in the democratic process. Among other things, they often feel that local elections are not competitive or that the candidates are too negative.

That will all change this year as students at the University can play a pivotal role in electing the next mayor of Minneapolis thanks to ranked-choice voting. RCV, a voting reform passed in 2006, ultimately gives every voter more power within the political system and will change the way that students participate in elections.

Using RCV, voters rank three candidates on their ballot in order of preference, instead of choosing just one. This gives voters the power to cast a vote for their favorite candidate without fear that that vote is being “wasted,” knowing that if he or she doesn’t have enough votes to win, their vote will count toward their second choice.

In an RCV election, candidates need to strive for a majority of the votes. This change has drastic effects that increase the influence that students and other historically underrepresented groups have in elections.

RCV eliminates the need for a local primary in August. Under the old system, local primaries were required to narrow a large set of candidates, which left voters with only two choices come November. Further, primary turnout was extremely low, and these voters were given the power to prematurely whittle the field. This minority was not representative of the city as a whole: They were generally older, less diverse and more devoted to one particular party than the average voter. Additionally, primaries are now held in early August, meaning thousands of students would be excluded from the process simply because they don’t live on campus during the summer. Getting rid of primaries is a big boost for student voters.

Under the old primary system, candidates only had to appeal to a small minority of voters to make it to the general election in November, thereby often ignoring students, communities of color and other underrepresented groups. By combining the primary with the general election, all voters have an equal say in who is elected.

RCV allows for more candidates — and therefore fresh ideas, creative solutions and more opinions — in the general election. It levels the playing field for all candidates and requires winners to appeal not only to their base, but also to a broader group of voters. Because no candidate in the Minneapolis mayoral race is likely to receive a majority of first choices, candidates are forced to campaign for second- and third- choice support as well, thus making campaigns more positive and focused on issues that resonate with voters. RCV forces candidates to be clear about what issues distinguish them from their opponents, as well as what issues they have in common. They can’t resort to negative campaigns because they want all voters to consider them for their second or third choice.

There has been a lot of discussion among critics of RCV about how students, elderly people and communities of color won’t understand how to rank their votes. This is simply untrue. RCV is as simple as one, two, three, and all voters are capable of it. If they are truly concerned about voter understanding of RCV, they should help educate voters instead of trying to get rid of RCV, which was supported overwhelmingly by voters in a referendum in 2006. Critics want to take us back to a time when only a small minority of voters participated in the August primary, where their influence carried further. RCV empowers all voters, including students, elderly people and communities of color, not just a small sliver of them. While the old system silenced the voices of students, we seek to amplify them.

The organization I work for, FairVote Minnesota, is running a campaign teaching groups of all backgrounds, including University students, about RCV. I’m proud that we’ve teamed up with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and registered thousands of students to vote for the first time, while also educating thousands more about how to rank their votes.

As we count down to Election Day, I urge you to play a role in ensuring that RCV is a success. Think not only about your favorite candidate for mayor, but also which candidates you want to rank as your second and third choices. Now that we have all the benefits of RCV, make sure that you show up Nov. 5 and rank your vote.