Ranked Choice declares victory. But is it delivering as promised?

Minneapolis candidates swept into office with ranked-choice voting are swept out again.

The off-year election of 2021 may have been tough on incumbents, but advocates for Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) were quick to declare victory. Before the previous day’s votes were even counted, on November 3, the national group FairVote.Org issued a press release declaring “Big Wins for Ranked Choice Voting in 2021 elections,” adding,

More than 30 cities successfully used RCV, many for the first time, and voters approved it in all three city ballot measures.

The local group, FairVote MN, chimed in the following day with “Ranked Choice Voting wins again in historic local Minnesota elections.” The group notes that five cities — Bloomington, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, and St. Paul — all used the voting method, with Bloomington and Minnetonka for the first time.

Results on the ground were rather mixed. In every instance but one in the five Minnesota municipal elections, a candidate either won a majority of first-choice votes, or the first round-leader prevailed at end of the counting.

That one instance to the contrary was the Minneapolis Park Board District 6 contest. In that race, four candidates split the vote. The leader after first-choice votes were tallied ended up in third place. The eventual winner did not reach a majority.

Across the five cities, that’s one contest flipped out of 31 single-member elections in 2021 or 3.22 percent. That’s par for the course, as FairVote.Org reports that four percent of contests nationwide over history had seen results flip as a result of RCV. In a less charitable view, you could say that 96 to 97 percent of the time, ranked-choice voting only adds confusion and expense to the process.

FairVote MN reports that the flipped result in Park District 6 marks only the third occasion since Minneapolis switched to RCV that the first-round leader did not prevail.

Although RCV did not flip any Minneapolis City Council races this year, two interesting RCV-related results did occur. Of the 13 Minneapolis City Council races on the 2021 ballot, two were for open seats. Of the 11 races featuring incumbents, five lost their bids for re-election.

Two of the five losers — Phillipe Cunningham and Steve Fletcher — had been first elected in 2017 in the only two previous instances where RCV flipped the results of a Minneapolis race. Both Cunningham and Fletcher were supporters of the recent efforts to defund the Minneapolis police department. Both were defeated by candidates opposed to defunding police.

In 2017, Cunningham defeated long-time incumbent and then-Council President Barbara Johnson for the north Minneapolis Ward 4 seat. Johnson was seen as a moderate, while the Star Tribune describes Cunningham as the “more progressive change agent.” Cunningham did not reach a majority of votes after three rounds of counting.

In 2017, Fletcher came from second place to defeat socialist Ginger Jentzen for the open downtown Minneapolis Ward 3 seat, then held by the then incoming mayor Jacob Frey. Four years later, Fletcher was ousted by a more moderate candidate.

These 2017 Minneapolis races have echoes in a more recent RCV upset in San Francisco. In the 2020 election, the incumbent San Francisco District 7 supervisor was term-limited. A total of seven candidates vied for the post. Of the top three vote-getters in the first round, first place Joel Engardio was seen as the moderate to conservative choice, second place, labor-endorsed Vilaska Nguyen was considered the furthest left, and third place Myrna Melgar was considered the progressive candidate. Third-place Melgar leap-frogged to victory in six rounds of counting.

Advocates sell RCV as the antidote to “polarization” that will produce more moderate, centrist office holders. In these three rare examples from two cities of RCV flipping the final results, the more moderate candidate won one and lost two. In the final irony, the one moderate winner lost re-election after moving too far to the extreme while in office.

More communities are buying into ranked-choice voting. They are not getting the moderating politics they were promised.