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Column: It’s time to take back our democracy

By Jeanne Massey, FairVote Minnesota

ST. PAUL — These midterm elections felt momentous, and they were. Some things changed on Tuesday — for the better or for the worse, depending on your ideological orientation — but in a sense, Nov. 6 was a referendum on democracy itself.

Most of us can agree that it’s in a bad way. And while we showed up to cast our votes in record numbers, we did so with keen awareness that big, structural changes are needed to revitalize or even salvage our system of government. That’s most likely why many state representatives have added their names to the growing list of Ranked Choice Voting supporters in Minnesota.

Our democracy is suffering from a host of ills: Alienation. Polarization. Needlessly limited choices. Unnecessary barriers to participation. Outright voter suppression. Insurmountable gridlock. And no one candidate, however extraordinary, can fix these problems; we’ve got to improve the whole electoral framework.

According to OpenSecrets.org, this cycle saw a staggering $5.2 billion in political ad spending nationally, much of it negative, which only increased voter disaffection. That’s nearly double what was spent during the 2014 midterms. Our plurality system of voting is a major reason why: it encourages candidates to demonize their opponents instead of campaigning on experience, issues and ideas. It provides a powerful tool to the PACs that put money behind their special interests. One structural reform — Ranked Choice Voting — does the exact opposite.

RCV lets voters rank candidates in order of preference: first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. In a single-seat election, if a candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, he or she wins. If not, the least popular candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices. If there’s still no majority winner, this process repeats until one candidate gains a majority of support.

Winning under RCV requires reaching out to a larger and more diverse constituency. Instead of dividing and conquering voters, candidates must cultivate consensus. Rather than attacking their opponents, they must seek common ground and appeal to those opponents’ supporters for second- or third-choice votes. Instead of relying mainly on costly and corrosive advertising, they’re spurred to work hard, articulate a positive vision, and connect with voters on issues they care about.

How do we know? Because this is already happening in municipal elections in forward-thinking cities across the country. As Minneapolis and St. Paul have experienced — since 2009 and 2011 respectively — RCV incentivizes old-fashioned, substantive “retail politics,” making money much less of a factor. It decreases blunt partisanship while fostering campaigning that’s more respectful.

And more inclusive — because it opens up the political process to more perspectives, more parties, more candidates — and encourages those candidates to reach out to a bigger, broader swath of the electorate. Disaffected millennials who are frustrated by the two “major” parties’ failure to prioritize climate change will find, under RCV, that their concerns and their voices do, in fact, matter.

Like other meaningful reforms, from automatic voter registration to redistricting reform to restoration of felon voting rights, RCV expands participatory democracy. At a time when some powerful forces conspire to shrink or eliminate it, we’ve got to do more than play defense. We’ve got to offer an alternative vision with concrete, achievable steps.

Step one is to take a simple, sensible, proven solution, Ranked Choice Voting, from beyond the city level — to county races, state races, and national races. Step two: the Minnesota Legislature must enact the RCV “local options” bill, so more communities have the freedom and flexibility to make this change, and (Step Three): we should move to become the second state (after Maine) to implement RCV statewide. There’s more we can and should do, but these measures would be a terrific start.  Democracy — in Minnesota and across the country — depends on it.

Jeanne Massey is executive director of FairVote Minnesota, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul.