One election may be too soon to reach a verdict, but Bloomington has completed its first ranked-choice voting election, and it hasn’t swayed the opinion of those for and against the system.

Eliminating the Bloomington City Council’s primary election in favor of ranked-choice voting meant that voters had an opportunity to express their preference beyond their first choice on the ballot. If any candidate had received first-choice votes on more than 50% of the ballots cast, the tabulation would have ended on Election Day. With undervotes and overvotes included in the tabulation, the city embarked on a three-day hand count of the ballots to eliminate the candidates with the fewest votes and redistribute those ballots to other candidates, when a preference was expressed.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting were pleased with the outcome of the city’s first such election.

Touted as a system that encourages a broader spectrum of political diversity, no candidate had locked up a majority on election night in three races that featured three or four candidates. That allowed the role of second-choice votes, which the system encourages candidates to seek, to help cement the races in the days that followed. Voters in City Council elections are no longer limited to a left-leaning or right-leaning choice on Election Day, according to Laura Calbone, who served as the chairwoman of The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting Bloomington.

Because candidates are encouraged to seek second-choice status with the voters, the system is said to discourage negative campaigning and encourage civic discussion. Was there a difference in the tone of the election this fall? Given the political climate, that’s a challenging proposition, according to Marcia Wattson, an organizer of the ranked-choice voting campaign. With the ongoing pandemic, akin to what the nation endured a century ago, civil rights discussions akin to the 1960s and distrust of government rivaling the 1970s – all occurring at the same time – it’s a difficult environment for any candidate to campaign in, Wattson explained.

Despite that, she thinks the needle is starting to move as a result of ranked-choice voting. “It is happening,” Wattson said.

Throughout the past year, the city and representatives of the ranked-choice voting committee conducted a variety of educational outreach exercises to inform voters of how their ballots would change, and how to express preferences on Election Day. Supporters of ranked-choice voting conducted exit polling to determine if voters took the time to rank the candidates, and if it was easy to do. The vast majority ranked their ballot and said it was easy to do, according to Calbone.

The slow, after-the-fact tabulation process raised questions about how the final totals were derived, but Calbone applauds the city for using a slower process of tabulating votes after the fact, which allowed anyone to see the vote redistribution play out. One of the objectives of ranked-choice voting supporters is to lobby for approval of a software program that will efficiently tabulate all votes on election night. No such software has state approval, currently, Calbone noted.

Opponents of ranked-choice voting campaigned against the system a year ago. Their opposition group, Ranked Choice Voting is a Scam, discounted the benefits touted, and pointed to examples of how eliminated ballots could result in a winner receiving less than the majority of ballots initially cast in a race.

Kolten Kranz, who served as a spokesperson for the group last year, said the loose-knit group hasn’t had a discussion about the results of the election, but that he’s skeptical that there were benefits to a ranked-choice election.

The city has not provided a cast-vote record of the balloting, showing how each ballot was redistributed as tabulation continued beyond the first round. There were summaries of how many votes each candidate received in each round, but no breakdown of how the vote distribution played out from round to round. That information would provide a better picture of how the results came to be, according to Kranz.

In the at-large race, for example, 3,400 voters cast their first vote for Ricardo Oliva. When he was eliminated after round 1, approximately 1,200 of those votes didn’t carry over to round 2, and Kranz would like a better picture of why that was the case, he explained.

It’s too early to determine if there was a meaningful cost savings, as the city did incur costs for hand-tabulating the results after the election, as well as education outreach costs prior to Election Day, he noted.

Calling ranked-choice voting “a solution to a problem that didn’t exist,” Kranz said that there’s not enough evidence that it was worth changing the voting system for the outcome the city received.

Under the old system, the outcome would have been the same. The leaders on election night went on to win their races when hand tabulations were complete. That’s not uncommon, according to Jeanne Massey, the executive director of FairVote Minnesota, an organization that works to promote ranked-choice voting in local and state elections.

The difference in ranked-choice elections, Massey said, is that the elections become less divisive based upon party affiliation, even in nonpartisan city council races. Primary elections whittle down the field to a party-versus-party campaign, typically, while a ranked-choice election gives voters an opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate and follow party preferences as a backup plan, she explained.

With wider fields, a ranked-choice election ensures that a candidate isn’t elected with just a plurality of the votes. Needing only a plurality – meaning the most votes but not necessarily over 50% – allows candidates to focus on their base and ignore the majority of voters, according to Massey.

Bloomington is one of five Minnesota cities using ranked-choice voting, and FairVote Minnesota will continue its support of state legislation to open up the opportunity for all cities to adopt the system. Cities with even-year elections alongside state and federal elections are not able to use ranked-choice voting due to ballot design requirements, Massey explained.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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