Duluth has some elections next week, and while I’ve handicapped most of the races at one point or another and don’t have many new things to say about them, I will spend some time on the topic that seems to generate the most debate in the social media world. That topic is…ranked choice voting (RCV). (In past posts I’ve used its other name, IRV, but I’ll use RCV this time since that’s the language on the ballot.) I went into greater depth on its flaws in this past post, and would point anyone interested in learning about RCV in that direction.
First, let’s clear up one misconception particular to the Duluth case: the initiative on the ballot, as currently proposed, will not eliminate those “costly” primary elections in Duluth. It covers only mayoral and city council elections, so the city will still need to roll out the whole show for the school board and anything else requiring a primary. Not only will there be no cost savings, it simply passes the costs off on a cash-strapped school board.
Otherwise, I’ll just point out that all of the claims for it are questionable at best. For every warm and fuzzy Minneapolis IRV election (which had lower turnout anyway), there are frustrations in Oakland. For every claim of empowerment of minorities, there’s a study pointing out that their ballots are more likely to be spoiled. For every San Francisco election (which invariably elects a popular liberal candidate, no matter what), there is another lawsuit and attempt to amend the system. Supporters and opponents can argue turnout numbers for all eternity.
It is most important to judge RCV not by its performance in obvious elections (as was the case in Minneapolis last time around), but by its performance in close ones. Here, things grow much murkier, with (right or wrong) questions of legitimacy and moves to repeal. Once RCV becomes an issue, the controversy never goes away. Just ask the one-third of U.S. municipalities that have repealed it after adoption. Is this really a debate we want to keep having every four years? Or maybe, just maybe, there are more pressing political questions to which we should devote our time and money.
Finally, there’s a claim circulating that the elected officials in Duluth who have come out against it are all just maintaining current power structures because they work for them. This is absurd. First off, most of the politicians who oppose RCV in Duluth won their elections comfortably, and would be in office with any voting method. (The lone exception, perhaps, is Don Ness, who could well have lost out in a crowded 2007 field that he did not lead after the primary.) Also, basically everyone who has come out against it for more than the most basic reasons is doing so because they were educated by a group of concerned UMD professors. (This includes me.) These professors are not politicians, and have nothing to gain personally from their campaign. They went in curious about RCV, learned more than anyone else, and came away unimpressed. Ever since, they’ve been doing their civic duty to inform anyone who will listen. This is the way local politics should work.
The only side in this election using any distinctive political muscle is the “yes” campaign, which is driven by the Twin Cities-based branch of Fair Vote Minnesota, a national organization whose ubiquity in these debates makes it hard to find any neutral voices in popular media. (Just google the term and see how many of the results include comments from Fair Vote or one if its proxies.) Naturally, they’d reject the label of an outside interest group, but that is just what they are here, as they spend a heap of money in a city they do not live in to influence an election. It’s all rather funny: I suspect most of the Fair Vote people are strong proponents of campaign finance reform and keeping big, distant, moneyed interests out of politics, and yet…here they are.
I’m sure the people of Fair Vote think they’re promoting democracy and doing the right thing, despite what the evidence might say. Their civic interest is admirable. Far less admirable is the missionary zeal with which they pitch their cause. The shrill tenor of the debate and dismissal of critics as simpletons or bigots is especially ironic, given the claim that RCV is supposed to reduce negativity in campaigns. Somehow, RCV has become part of a religious cause; one that is incapable of self-reflection and above any criticism, and considers the cause more important than the deliberative democratic process it needs to go through to become reality. If only it were actually a cause worth fighting for.