Ranked Choice Voting and Voter Participation

Note: This post is a part of an ongoing series of posts about Ranked Choice Voting.  You can find other posts in the series here, with more posts to come.

Voter participation in the U.S. is hard to pin down. It can be measured as percentage of registered voters, eligible voters, those of voting age, or of the population as a whole. Participation is higher in presidential elections with new candidates then when one is up for re-election, with even lower turnout for midterm elections, primaries, and municipal races. And voting rates vary widely from state to state, district to district, and demographic to demographic. Increasing the benefits of voting, and or decreasing the obstacles in order to improve voter turnout is not a straightforward proposition with a one size fits all solution.

Still, it’s easy to see why in recent years Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is appealing to many who are looking for ways increase voter turnout. In certain types of elections RCV can eliminate the need for primaries so people only need to make the effort to vote once. Ranking also offers people more choices and doesn’t alienate those who don’t want a major party candidate and it gives each vote more meaning since all votes will affect a candidate’s outcome. RCV also encourages civility during the campaign as each candidate can still benefit from being the number two choice of their opponent’s supporters.

But RCV has drawbacks, the system is unfamiliar to most Americans and is more complicated than just choosing a single candidate, it also costs voters more in terms of time and mental energy to get informed enough to rank many candidates rather than just picking one of two. As states and municipalities around the country implement ranked choice voting and more information becomes available, the data suggests that while RCV can help bring more people to the polls in some circumstances, it’s by no means a magic bullet to boost American’s participation in the election process.

Minneapolis Minnesota is one of the cities to have recently switched to ranked choice voting, which they initially referred to as Instant Runoff Voting, because it eliminated primaries. In 2006 voters in Minneapolis approved a ballot measure to adopt RCV for their municipal elections starting in 2009. Though the measure passed by a wide margin and there didn’t seem to be strong opposition before hand, afterwards it sparked a lawsuit and constitutional challenge. But, the measure stuck and in 2009 Minneapolis citizens got the chance to vote by ranking their candidates for Mayor, City Council, Board of Estimate and Taxation, and Park Board.

RCV did seem to offer some advantages in Minneapolis with the press noting far less negative campaigning and when the election ended it was a success in terms of delivering winning candidates. Unfortunately the numbers showed that it had not improved voter turnout in the way RCV proponents may have hoped. In fact, Minneapolis voter turnout continued a downward trend and hit a low point under the new system before recovering some in 2013.

In addition to failing to increase overall voter turnout, RCV in Minneapolis has not shown progress in terms of improving participation for specific demographics; in 2009 and 2013 districts with lower income voters and minority voters still had far lower turnout than those comprised mostly affluent and white voters.

Given that turnout for municipal election in Minneapolis was already on a downward trend it would be unfair to conclusively blame 2009’s low percentage just on RCV. But, so far the added benefits of RCV have not been sufficient to outweigh the added challenges and get more people to the polls. The good news for RCV is that as people become more used to the new ballot format it may cease to be an impediment to voting, while the benefits should endure, so RCV may end up increasing voter participation more over time.

Without compulsory voting, changing the cost benefit analysis of voting for Americans is a complicated process. Citizens have to evaluate the likelihood that their vote will impact the election, the likelihood that their candidate will win, and the benefits that they’ll get if they do, and then weigh those gains against the costs of voting which include the time and effort it takes to register, get informed, make a decision, and get to the polls. Reforms that may increase the benefit for some people in certain places during one type of election, may not work under other circumstances. As we can see from the experience of Minneapolis and other places that have adopted RCV, expecting any single change to have an immediate dramatic impact on voter participation is unrealistic. Instead reforms like RCV should be evaluated over time and with consideration to how they impact multiple facets of the democratic process, not simply any one metric such as voter participation rates.












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