Presentation Explains Ranked Choice Voting as it Becomes Reality in Ferndale (video)
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Aug. 27, 2019)
Ferndale, Oak Park, MI- As voters in Maine see Ranked Choice Voting implemented for the Primary Election, voters in Ferndale may not even realize that it’s coming.
In 2004 voters in the small Detroit suburb approved a charter change that would mean instead of each person voting for one candidate, voters would rank the candidates in order of preference.
If no candidate gets 50% of the votes in the election, the second choice votes of the least popular candidate would come into play. Those votes would be redistributed among the other candidates. If there is still not a 50% majority, the next least popular candidate would be eliminated and their second choice votes redistributed, and so on until a majority is met.
This reduces the risk of “splitting the ticket,” which is where two candidates split the votes of the majority and a lesser-liked candidate gets in. It also reduces the “spoiler” effect, such as was seen in the 2000 Presidential election. In that race Green party candidate Ralph Nadar got 2.74% of the vote nationwide. Some argued that had Nader not been in the race, his votes would have gone to Al Gore, and the entire election would have turned out differently.
It was that election that got local activists thinking about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), then called Instant Runnoff Voting (IRV). Kat Bruner James worked on the campaign to get the Ferndale City Charter changed to include RCV. Although the voters approved it in 2004, it hasn’t been implemented yet because of the software and voting machines required. Now those machines are available, and the Ferndale City Clerk Marne McGrath is hoping to move forward with IRV/RCV elections as early as 2021.
Bruner James spoke to interested residents at a recent Oakland County Green Party meeting in Oak Park.
“After that election I felt absolutely demoralized and frustrated. Greens blamed Democrats for having a very lackluster candidate…and Democrats blamed the Green Party for taking “their votes” and splitting that election,” Bruner James said. “But not enough people blamed the flaws in our electoral system.”
Bruner James is a candidate for City Council in the 2019 election where there are multiple candidates competing for two seats. While RCV will not be implemented in time for that election, it certainly is one where the process could be helpful since it is unlikely any candidate will reach over 50%. In 2013 Ferndale also had an election with multiple candidates, and the issue of RCV came up for discussion, with local politicos hypothesizing what could happen with such a full ballot.
The presenter prefers this method. “Voters can select a minority party or an independent, or otherwise perceived underdog, without fear of splitting votes among like-minded people,” she said. “It reduces the ‘lesser of two evils’ narrative. With RCV, voters feel free to vote for candidates they support rather than making a strategic vote against a candidate they very much dislike… To me the most significant benefit of RCV is that voters feel more invested and are more likely to be satisfied by the process.”
Communities around the country use RCV, and even in Michigan Ferndale is not first. Ann Arbor adopted it for one election back in the 1970s, but those unhappy with the outcome campaigned to have the city go back to the “winner take all” system.
Ferndale would likely have been the first, however the City of Eastpointe was court-ordered to implement RCV as part of a consent decree. In 2017 the US Department of Justice sued the city based on the fact that no minority candidates had ever held public office, in spite of the city having a population that is about a third African American. For four years the city will have RCV as an effort to increase minority representation. Another option considered was diving the city into districts, however city officials felt that would create more division, according to a report in the Detroit News.
Like many city and county clerks, Ferndale’s McGrath will be watching the elections in nearby Eastpointe.
“Although it is a disappointment not to be the first city in Michigan to use ranked choice voting, I consider it a win overall that the US Department of Justice is requiring and implementing its use this year in Eastpointe. I have reached out to the Eastpointe clerk’s office to learn from their experiences this November,” McGrath said.
The new system will require public education. However McGrath is putting off creating materials until it is confirmed that the system will be in place, and so she can learn from the experiences in places like Maine and Eastpointe. Other places with RCV include Berkeley, Cambridge, Minneapolis, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Fe, St. Paul, Takoma Park (Maryland), and Telluride (Colorado). About a dozen other cities across the country have approved, but not implemented, the system.
The change would only impact municipal-level elections in Ferndale. Votes for higher offices would continue as they are now.
Bruner James said the biggest challenge is helping voters get past their fear of change. She called IRV “intuitive,” comparing it to how a family might decide on dinner. “In our daily lives we’re constantly ranking our choices right? When you go to dinner and order off the menu at a restaurant, maybe your first choice was the mac and cheese…and they say… sorry would you like to order something different – chances are you are going to order something different and be okay with it, because they’re more than one selection on the menu that you kindda like. So I don’t think it’s all that difficult to conceptualize political candidates in the same way.”
FairVote.org is the nationwide organization tracking and promoting RCV. On their website is information about the process, sample ballots, and tracking of implementation. In Michigan, the effort is being led by Rank MI Vote. Their website is www.rankMIvote.com.
Analysis: IRV and the Ferndale Mayor’s Race (Nov. 7, 2013)
IRV: What’s Missing from Ferndale’s Election (Sept. 29, 2013)