Ranked choice voting is not the so called ‘spoiler effect’

BERTHA LEWIS, Executive Director of The Black Institute. | 10/31/2019, 12:38 p.m.
Any political campaign is challenging, but we know that for Black and Brown candidates, who’ve historically been excluded from elected ...

Any political campaign is challenging, but we know that for Black and Brown candidates, who’ve historically been excluded from elected office, it’s even harder. That’s why as a longtime organizer in New York City, and a Black trans City Councilman from Minneapolis, we support ranked choice voting: a critical reform that will appear on the ballot this Fall.

Here’s why.

In diverse cities like Minneapolis and New York City where races can easily get crowded with seven or more candidates, the so called “spoiler effect” is a real concern. When more than one candidate of color runs it’s inevitable we end up splitting the votes of our base making it nearly impossible for either to win to represent that base. This very real problem can easily discourage candidates of color from running for office, and deprive our communities of the choices we deserve.

That’s where ranked choice voting comes in.

Multiple candidates of color can run, increasing the chances that any of them might win because voters don’t have to pick just one! When voters rank their top five choices in order of preference they can vote for as many candidates of color as possible. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and voters’ second choices are redistributed. This process continues until a candidate wins with a majority of the votes. So it doesn’t matter if two or more candidates share a base when voters rank their choices.

In 2018 Fairvote did a study looking at the four Bay Area cities with ranked choice voting: San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro and Berkeley. In these four racially diverse cities, candidates of color won more elections (62 percent) than before (38 percent).

The fact is more candidates of color can run, and win, in places with ranked choice voting. In Minneapolis two candidates of color entered the race in 2017 against a 20 year white incumbent. One of us (Phillipe) was able to build a relationship with the other, urging voters to rank us number 1 and number 2 on the ballot, so we could both benefit. It also meant we cut out mud-slinging and negative campaigning.

That’s good for voters too. A two year study by the Democracy Fund found that voters in three cities with ranked choice voting—Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., and Cambridge, Mass.—were more satisfied and found campaigning more positive than in the seven cities without it. It also means more people vote. When Phillipe ran in Minneapolis, voter turnout increased by 1,400 votes from the previous election. Voter turnout in New York City is pathetically low, especially during off year and special elections. But with ranked choice voting, cities on average experience a 10 point increase in turn-out according to a study done by the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

As Phillipe’s 2017 race showed, RCV incentivises politicians to connect with more voters in as many communities as possible. The communities we come from and seek to represent are frequently ignored by politicians. Under our current system politicians only need to campaign to their base in order to win, and can get away with ignoring other communities like ours. But ranked choice voting means we have to build relationships across communities, listen to a diversity of concerns, and fight for all voters.

In 2021 the Campaign Finance Board predicts there will be at least 500 candidates running for local office in New York City, and voters will have to make many tough choices. But a vote for ranked choice voting this year will mean we can look forward to candidates who truly represent the diversity of New York City. Vote yes on ballot question 1 for ranked choice voting. We can have a choice, let’s make it.

Bertha Lewis is the founder and president of The Black Institute, and Minneapolis Council Member Phillipe Cunningham