August 9, 2018
After the party conventions in early June, we made several predictions for this primary season, including the expectation that several candidates will win with a very small share of voter support. While we don’t know who will win on Tuesday, here’s what we expect:
1. Small plurality victories. In the highly contested multiple-candidate DFL races for governor, attorney general and Congressional Districts 5 and 8, the vote will be split several ways and winning candidates are likely to emerge with just a small plurality of the vote. That’s what plurality elections give us: whoever gets the most votes wins, even if that equals a mere fraction of voter support.
In a five-way race –such as in CDs 5 and 8— the prevailing candidate may very well win with barely 25 percent of the vote, which means that more than 70 percent of voters will not have supported her or him. In the three-way governor’s race as competitive as this one is likely to be, the winner may emerge with just a third of the vote. Candidates win but the majority loses and winners lack a mandate advancing to the General Election.
2. Higher turnout but still too low. While turnout in primaries has been up across the country–Minnesota is likely to follow this trend—turnout in partisan primaries is still woefully low in early August compared to the General Election. The highest August primary turnout on record, counting all parties, was in 2010 with 15.8 percent. That means that less than a quarter of Minnesota voters will determine the ultimate gubernatorial candidates for both parties! And in single-party dominated races like CD 5, the winner on Tuesday will become that district’s next representative in Congress. Combined with a potential small plurality victory in that race, the actual number of voters making this decision will be far from representative of the district.
3. The “spoiler effect” in full play. Last week’s Star Tribune article, “DFL in bitter clash with Senate candidate Richard Painter,” illustrated yet one more example of the perennial “spoiler” problem that plagues our electoral system under plurality rules. A former Republican, Painter chose to run on the DFL senate ticket instead of an independent ticket because there’s no viable path for third-party candidates under the current system. In other political chatter, we hear worries such as “Lori Swanson is ‘taking’ moderate votes from Tim Walz,” or “Erin Murphy and Tim Walz are splitting the progressive vote,” or “Patricia Torres Ray and Ilhan Omar are splitting the vote among communities of color,” and so on. The bottom line for voters? Fear that their vote will actually help their last choice win.
4. Negative campaigning and outsized influence of outside expenditure groups. Under our plurality, winner-take-all system, negative campaigning works. It is especially effective in head-to-head races, which most races will be following the Primary. Under our current system, the influence of PACs also goes a long way by aligning with a small fraction of voters. Their single most successful strategy is to raise and spend a lot of money on negative mailings and television ads. While we’ve not yet seen PACs spend in the primary election – especially with so many of the DFL candidates needing to appeal to second-choice votes after the primary – we should expect to see partisan PACs spend furiously leading up to the General Election. This onslaught of negativity no doubt will increase voter cynicism and cause many to simply tune out and stay home on Election Day.
Outcomes would be different under Ranked Choice Voting.
FairVote Minnesota is advocating for use of Ranked Choice Voting in state elections in order to eliminate these divisive and unrepresentative outcomes. Under RCV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference and the candidate with the broadest support wins. Best of all, in RCV elections no one worries about how one candidate’s presence in a race hurts another.
RCV is a proven system used in Minneapolis, St. Paul (and soon in St. Louis Park), San Francisco (most recently in last month’s mayoral special election), and many other cities, as well as the nations of Australia, Ireland and Scotland. This past June, Maine became the first state in the nation to use it for state partisan primaries and it exceeded all expectations. Today’s Boston Globe editorial praised the system and called on its state to follow Maine’s lead:
“Generally speaking, the system did deliver on its promises — and did so at a reasonable added cost of only about $110,000, with none of the major controversies or chaos many of its critics predicted. Now Massachusetts must follow Maine and become the next state to adopt ranked-choice voting.”
Minnesota should also follow suit. If Minnesota used Ranked Choice Voting for primaries, we would see candidates campaigning for and winning with a majority of votes, more positive campaigning (because candidates want voters’ second choice vote if they can’t be their first), coalition-building among the candidates (see this example of two Maine candidates for governor), less influence by PACs, and no “strategic voting” to avoid the spoiler effect.
We hope you will consider writing an editorial supporting a change to Ranked Choice Voting statewide and in the cities you cover.
Please let us know if you’d be interested in talking with a representative from FairVote Minnesota and a local legislator about why Ranked Choice Voting makes sense for your region and the entire state. We would be happy to set up a call or find a time to visit you in person.