Should the DC left fear ranked choice voting or semi-open primaries?

Engraving "An Election Entertainment" by the late satirist William Hograth. Based on the disorderly and riotous Oxfordshire election of 1754. The upstart Duke of Marlborough, a Whig ("the New Interest"), challenged the entrenched Tories ("the Old Interest") in their established stronghold.

Editor's note: An endorsement of Initiative 83, a ballot initiative that would bring ranked choice voting and open primaries to DC, is being considered by the Metro DC DSA chapter. The discussion surrounding endorsement has opened up a wider debate about political strategy among electorally-minded socialists and progressives. Below: a first hand analysis of the system shared by a Minneapolis expat, which currently uses a very similar system.

I'M ORIGINALLY FROM THE TWIN CITIES. I grew up in the capital, Saint Paul, and I spent the first seven years of my adult life living in Minneapolis from 2014-2021. I think of Minneapolis as my home and the place of my earliest politicization as a socialist. For five of those years (2016-2021), I lived in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood in Ward 3, where DSA endorsed then-City Council candidate Ginger Jentzen in 2017. I am also particularly familiar with Minneapolis' municipal and state election laws, as well as our voters. I worked as a full-time Elections Assistant for Hennepin County throughout all of 2020, personally helping thousands of Minneapolis voters at the Government Center downtown during the six-week early voting period preceding the Presidential Primary, State Primary, and General Election.

I have noticed that the electoral history of DSA-backed candidates in my home city tends to be cited as an example by both opponents and proponents of I-83 — the initiative that would instruct the District Council to enact ranked choice voting (RCV) and semi-open primaries — at local convention, the January general body meeting, and in casual conversations. In addition to my relationship to Minneapolis and the earliest DSA-endorsed candidate there, I follow the politics of my home city closely, and I believe I may offer a unique perspective on I-83 for DSA comrades considering endorsement from the chapter, but also to leftists in DC thinking about the impact I-83 might have on local electoral performance.

RCV in the Twin Cities (and beyond)

Pictured above: A picture Minneapolis, Minnesota. Pulled from Wikipedia, February 13th 2024.

Nearly 65% of Minneapolis voters approved the adoption of ranked choice voting in municipal elections via ballot initiative in 2006. The city started using the new system in 2009, which then spread to Saint Paul and other municipalities in the Twin Cities metro area. Until I moved to Austin in 2021, I had only ever used RCV to elect my local representatives and had grown up under this expansion. Minnesota also already has open primaries. Under this system, I never had to formally register as a Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party member or voter. Instead, I would choose in the privacy of the ballot box which party's primary I was going to vote in. This meant that all candidates from all parties with primaries would appear on the same ballot, and I would choose which to participate in at the time of voting. Each party's primary appears as a column or section of the ballot, and each voter can only vote in one (i.e., I could not vote in both the DFL primary for state senate and the Republican primary for city council).

At the municipal level, Minneapolis city council races are formally non-partisan and include all candidates affiliated with both major parties, third parties, and independents on the same ballot. The Twin Cities are deep-blue, solidly DFL voting territory, with over 70% of voters in Hennepin and Ramsey counties voting for Biden in 2020 and Tim Walz for governor in 2022. These margins rise into the mid-80s when limited solely to the cities of Minneapolis or Saint Paul, slightly lower than the 93% of DC voters who pulled the lever for Biden in the last presidential election. With few exceptions, the DFL has dominated the city councils and mayorships of both cities since  the early 1970s. I spent all seven years in Minneapolis without a single Republican on the City Council, and that remains the case today.

During my first two years in Minneapolis, I lived on the University of Minnesota's West Bank Campus and in the Como neighborhood, both of which are in Ward 2. Co-founder of the Green Party of Minnesota, Cam Gordon, represented the ward from 2006 until 2021, when DSA member Robin Wonsley Worlobah won the primary by 14 votes after the third round of ranked choice votes and a recount. Wonsley has extended the legacy of non-DFL representation in Ward 2 and succeeded in convincing the DFL to refrain from endorsing in the 2023 primary. This contributed to the absence of any significant challenger to Wonsley in the ward in 2023, where she won re-election in the first round with nearly 67% of the vote.

Pictured above: First and second round vote results in the Ward 2 Minneapolis 2021 City Council election. Incumbent Cam Gordon was elected through the local Green Party.

In her 2021 victory, Wonsley was ahead by just 44 votes after first-choice votes were counted and maintained her lead, which is the norm under RCV. FairVote, a prominent advocate for RCV nationally, maintains a handy searchable list of come-from-behind wins in RCV elections through 2022, which shows there had only been 25 races won by a candidate other than the first-round leader. FairVote reports that these 25 come-from-behind cases represent “6% of all single-winner RCV races with 3+ candidates (407 races), and 11% of all races that used multiple rounds of counting (232 races). Compare this with the rate of come-from-behind wins in two-round runoff elections, estimated at 32% in congressional primary runoffs. Of the 25 come-from-behind wins in RCV elections, 23 were won by the candidate who began in second place." Aside from its rarity, proponents of RCV would argue that this is not an unfair result but a sign that the system is working and resulting in the candidate with the broadest support winning.

Additionally, contrary to arguments I have heard regarding two races in particular, Ginger Jentzen (a socialist who ran for Minneapolis City Council in 2017) and Soren Stevenson (another socialist who ran and lost by a narrow margin in a City Council primary in 2023), the come-from-behind wins achieved using RCV have benefitted socialist candidates and ostensible allies. Accounting only for candidates from races I personally followed: 

  1. Kristin Richardson Jordan, a Black queer socialist and then-DSA member who sought but did not receive the local chapter's endorsement, started out 2 points behind with 19% of the vote in the first round, and then won with 50.3% in the 2021 New York City Democratic Primary for City Council District 9. She chose not to run for re-election in 2023.
  2. Shekar Krishnan, described as "DSA-lite" by journalist Ross Barkan, started out .6% behind with 26.3% of the vote in the first round, and then won with 53.4% in the 2021 New York City Democratic Primary for City Council District 25. Krishan was re-elected in 2023.
  3. Philippe Cunningham started out 2.3 points behind with 40.7% of the vote in the first round, and then won with 51.7% in the 2017 Minneapolis Ward 4 primary, ousting a 20-year incumbent and City Council president. The first openly transgender man of color elected in the country, Cunningham was endorsed by a wide array of progressive individuals and organizations, including Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison. He lost his campaign for re-election in 2021 in a race dominated by attacks against him for "defunding the police."

Furthermore, the Twin Cities DSA has had significant electoral success under this system. Since 2019 (or 2021 if we only count formal endorsements), DSA electeds have come to occupy 30% of the elected seats on both councils in the Twin Cities. Breaking down Twin Cities DSA’s electoral performance in Minneapolis over the years:

  • 2023: 6 of 7 endorsed city council candidates’ races (4/5 in Minneapolis and 2/2 in Saint Paul)
  • 2021: 3 of 4 endorsed candidates’ races (winning all three city council races and coming in second place with 21% of first-choice votes in the mayoral race) and 1 of 2 ballot measures
  • 2019: The chapter made no formal endorsements, although members were encouraged to support Nelsie Yang in Saint Paul Ward 6 (who won and later received a formal endorsement in 2023)
  • 2017: The chapter lost Ginger Jentzen's race in Minneapolis Ward 3

Including formally endorsed races in both cities, the chapter's win rate in RCV elections was 85.71% in 2023 and 66.67% in 2021 — both higher than and just shy of the National DSA win rate of 69% in the 23 nationally endorsed races last year, as well as the chapter’s win rate in races that do not use RCV (75% of endorsed candidates won in 2022).

On Soren and Ginger's losses

I want to take a look at the two higher-profile DSA losses in Minneapolis: Soren Stevenson in 2023 and Ginger Jentzen in 2017. Although RCV is a tempting foil, I think there are specific circumstances and dynamics in the city that explain these losses beyond the voting system.

On Soren Stevenson (2023 Minneapolis City Council Ward 8 primary)...

As one might expect, the Minneapolis DFL tends to be more progressive than the statewide DFL. The DFL endorsement in particular is highly sought-after in the heavily DFL-dominated city, and the DFL has endorsed both DSA candidates in open primaries and DSA incumbents in the past two cycles. To give an idea of the weight of these endorsements in municipal politics, in 2023 the Ward 10 convention broke out into a literal brawl just as Aisha Chughtai was about to give a speech, and two other wards saw accusations of cheating, with one ultimately deciding to cancel convention without an endorsement. 

It was a pleasant surprise when DSA-endorsed candidate Soren Stevenson received the Ward 8 DFL endorsement over incumbent and City Council President Andrea Jenkins. This was a surprise not only due to Jenkins' incumbency and position as City Council President, but because a white man was being endorsed over the first Black transgender woman elected to the council. The shock was heightened in part because Sorenson lost an eye when Minneapolis police officers shot him in the face during the George Floyd uprising, which was commented on repeatedly in local media coverage of the race. 

Pictured above: DSA member and endorsee Soren Stevenson, who lost his close city-council election last year.

I would argue that Sorenson was so competitive in this race — he started out ahead by 106 first-choice votes, and then lost by 38 after the second-choice votes were counted — because he (crucially) had both the DFL endorsement and the grassroots organizing power of the Twin Cities DSA. However, this wasn’t enough to overcome the institutional support incumbent Andrea Jenkins enjoyed, which included prominent progressives such as Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison. There is a fairly strong custom of protecting incumbents among DFL elected officials and allied forces: in addition to Omar and Ellison, AFSCME, SEIU, the Teamsters, as well as building trades and firefighters unions, Realtors PAC, and LGBTQI+ organizations, among others, maintained support for Jenkins in the race. This establishment support was enough for Andrea Jenkins to win when combined with capital-aligned forces and voters, and a plurality of DFL primary voters with a certain brand of liberal-identitarian politics reacting to the unique racial dynamic of the campaign in a city still grappling with the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

Moreover, All of Mpls, a PAC aligned with centrist Mayor Jacob Frey, raised $1 million from the Chamber of Commerce, the family that owns the Minnesota Twins baseball team, and the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents residential landlords. The PAC endorsed candidates based on the belief that they would “hold the line on public safety, affordable housing, and more against the DSA.” All of Mpls spent nearly $100,000 on behalf of Jenkins. The primary competing PAC, Minneapolis for the Many, raised just over $200,000 and supported three of the five DSA-endorsed candidates in the most competitive races, including $15,000 in support of Sorenson. Despite this vast difference in financial resources in an off-year local race, the first and second-round results were decided by low triple- and double-digit margins.

This example does demonstrate one of the potential downsides to RCV — just as it can be used (and is perhaps more likely to be used) to boost upstart candidates on the left, it can also be used by moderates (or, non-socialist progressives) to cobble together narrow wins. But I think the specific political conditions of this race were more influential here, and nevertheless the left-wing of the city council still expanded to a 7/13 majority even with this loss. Depending on the issue, previous voting patterns on the council suggest they may now be able to make progress on a number of DSA priorities such as rent control, regulations on rideshare companies (again), and other policies in line with a municipal Green New Deal. I am personally curious about the mailers residents were receiving in 2021 about passing a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.

On Ginger Jentzen (2017 City Council Ward 3 primary)...

As I mentioned, I lived in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Ward 3 when DSA endorsed Ginger Jentzen in the 2017 primary. I voted for Ginger, encouraged my peers to do the same, and even attended a campaign fundraiser at a comrade's house. Aside from that, I had no other connections to the campaign and I was not a member at the time (though, neither was Ginger).

Pictured above: Minneapolis city council candidate Ginger Jentzen in 2017. Ginger was running publicly as a surrogate of Socialist Alternative, a left-wing electoralist group associated with Kshama Sawant out of Seattle.

Back in 2017, there were only 35 DSA members in elected office nationwide and the Twin Cities chapter had not yet begun its recent winning streak. At the time, Ginger Jentzen was a member of Socialist Alternative (SA) and an activist most known for organizing in the movement for a $15 minimum wage. There was enough debate over whether or not to endorse Ginger at all, being that she was not a DSA member (a classic intra-left squabble), that I was hearing about it as a college student and non-member in the post-Bernie, rapidly-growing DSA orbit. Whatever flavor of socialist Ginger was, it was an exciting campaign that was covered in many lefty publications and garnered national attention. Some characterized the formally non-partisan race and RCV as an electoral opening for a candidate like Ginger, and even in defeat SA touted the campaign as a victory — I would agree given how the campaign demonstrated popular support for policies like a $15 minimum wage and rent control that have since been enacted or nearly enacted.

The results were close, but not as close as Soren’s against Andrea Jenkins. In the first round, Ginger was ahead by 588 votes with about 34.37% of the vote. In the end, Ginger lost by 1,017 votes to DFL-endorsed Steven Fletcher, who won with 50.68% of the vote. After subsequent rounds of voting, Ginger's vote total increased by 547 votes, amounting to 40.08% of the vote. Although she lost, Ward 3 also learned that hundreds more residents had listed a socialist candidate as their second or third choice, increasing her overall level of support and revealing a constituency for socialist politics in the area.

What really caused this loss? First, the anti-establishment appeal and grassroots energy of the campaign was at the time only powerful enough to win a plurality but not a majority of votes. Second, Steve Fletcher was campaigning as a progressive, and today is most well known for his call to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of the George Floyd uprising. There were two additional candidates: One running with the Green Party and another who was affiliated with but not endorsed by the DFL. It is possible that there would have been less grassroots energy behind the campaign if Ginger had sought the DFL endorsement, but I nonetheless think it played a role in the result. For better or worse, all DSA-endorsed candidates who have won city council races in Minneapolis either received the DFL endorsement, or, as in the cases of Robin Wonsley in Ward 2 and Aisha Chughtai in her first race in Ward 10, no candidate received a DFL endorsement.

My read of both Soren and Ginger's elections is that they were winnable races that DSA unfortunately happened to lose. Although these losses happened under RCV, I don’t think it was the reason they lost. It is unlikely that it would apply in Ginger's case where there was a more significant vote difference (1,017 votes, and over 10% of the total). In Soren's case, decided by just 38 votes, this is the sort of rare situation where a small number of more conservative voters, whatever their partisan (non-)affiliation, may have determined the result. However, under a different set of rules, maybe this voter bloc would have consolidated before election day.

The “Primary” Question

For many already sold on RCV, the biggest pitfall of I-83 is that it would introduce semi-open primaries, meaning that unaffiliated voters would get to choose which primary they would like to vote in. The model proposed by Initiative 83 is a bit different from what we have in Minneapolis — only independent voters would get to choose their ballot preference. But there is an existing body of research on the question of crossover and strategic voting. In their "Analysis of Crossover and Strategic Voting," Drs. R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler came to some interesting conclusions from an analysis that used academic individual level survey data, media exit-polls, and aggregate election returns on a county by county basis from 1980-1996. The pair found that: 

  • there is very little crossover voting in general in US primaries;
  • the difference in the amount of crossover voting between states with open primaries and closed primaries is not substantively large;
  • and the amount of strategic behavior influencing voters is extremely small.

Nadler and Alvarez have come to similar conclusions about California's post-1998 "blanket" primary system, and post-2012 "top-two" primary system. In the conclusion to Voting at the Political Fault Line: California’s Experiment with the Blanket Primary (2002), they found that voters are more likely to crossover to participate in a more competitive primary, especially if voters are in the extreme minority and know that the winner of the other party’s primary is all-but-guaranteed to win the general election — the exact situation in which conservative voters in DC find themselves. In his article, “Voter Behavior in California’s Top Two Primary” (2015), Dr. Nagler indicates that the impact on candidate ideology is small and found that voters faced with two candidates of the opposing party abstained from voting in the general election at high rates.

This is in line with recent research on semi-closed primaries which suggests that voters taking advantage of unaffiliated registration "is most common where a voter’s party is not competitive and the access unaffiliated registration provides to the strong party’s primary is valuable." Put simply, those few crossover voters and even fewer strategic crossover voters would be most likely to do so as, for example, a Democratic voter in a deeply red area or a Republican voter in a deeply blue area. Given that this "instrumental motive" already applies significantly to conservative voters living in DC, it is likely that conservative voters are already choosing to vote in Democratic primaries in DC knowing they would have no impact otherwise. Despite this, a low-double digit percentage of voters in DC still chooses to vote in the primaries or for candidates of the Statehood Greens (with which DC DSA has both a historic and ongoing relationship), Republicans, and Libertarians, DC has two elected "independents," however more often than not these victors are often mainstream local democrats. In 2022, both the Statehood Greens and independents garnered more votes than Republicans or Libertarians (sometimes even when combined) in some races. That year, Zachary Parker won the Ward 5 primary 3,408 votes (19.1%) ahead of his nearest opponent (there were about 200 Republicans voting in their party's primary), and before that Janeese Lewis George won the Ward 4 primary 2,341 votes (11.7%) ahead of her nearest competitor in 2020 (in this race, there were about 130 Republicans voting in their party's primary). Both went on to win more than 90% of the vote in the general election.

Likewise, John D. Johnson, a Research Fellow in the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin (an open primary state like Minnesota), has written about the lack of crossover voting in the state. When he wrote about this topic in 2019 and 2023, he examined data on the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections. Johnson finds that a roughly equal percentage (2%) of voters from either of the two major parties engaged in crossover voting, with a few slightly higher examples — 3% of Democrats crossover voting in the presidential primary in 2016, and 5% of Republicans crossover voting in the Democratic presidential primary in 2020. Moreover, those who crossover tend to be "segmented partisans" who are more ideologically aligned with the other party (that is, more conservative Democrats choosing to vote in a Republican primary and less conservative Republicans choosing to vote in a Democratic primary). The "segmented partisan hypothesis" also matches what we know about independent voters. Continuing "a long-standing dynamic that has been the subject of past analyses" in 2019, Pew Research Center found that there are exceedingly few voters (less than 10%) who are genuine independents, meaning they do not lean towards either of the two major parties. Genuine independents who lean towards neither major party are "a group that consistently expresses less interest in politics than partisan leaners – [and they] were less likely to say they had registered to vote and much less likely to say they voted. In fact, just a third said they voted in the midterms." As Johnson writes: "It's more likely that the small numbers of voters who identify with one party but choose to switch primaries are expressing a sincere preference between the other party’s candidates."

As recently as 2022, Democratic political data firm TargetSmart — not aligned with socialist politics, but they are certainly interested in knowing if crossover voting would affect the candidates they work for — also found that crossover voting occurs at low rates and "rarely happens in large enough numbers to sway the outcome of any primary." Furthermore, most of the recent examples they cite are about "a broader trend of Democrats intervening to try to beat back the extremes of the G.O.P., in Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado, Utah and elsewhere." The titular examples are Democrats trying to defeat Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), re-elect Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), or most recently to boost Nikki Haley in her bid against Donald Trump in states with open primary systems. These concerted and well-funded efforts in high-profile national races succeeded in moving some voters to crossover, but as with other such attempts in 2008 and 2012, each has failed miserably. Even so, a growing number of state Republican parties want to close primaries, and a constellation of right-wing organizations such as the America First Policy Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foundation for Government Accountability have come out strong against RCV, seeing it as "a partisan plot to engineer election results" in favor of Democrats. There is good reason for them to believe this given the recent victories of first-round-leading Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and come-from-behind winner Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME).

Should the left really fear these proposals?

Maybe I should be more concerned about the potential for such efforts to be maliciously directed at socialist electoral campaigns. I'm not. It is largely already the case that DSA-endorsed candidates are vastly outspent by their more conservative opponents under primary and voting systems of all types across the country. DSA chapters, including our own, continue to elect socialists despite the odds stacked against them.

The rates of (strategic) crossover voting are (extremely) low and it almost never impacts the outcome of a primary. Among crossover voters, they tend to be "segmented partisans" (meaning they are more likely to crossover into a party they are more ideologically aligned with rather than less). Moreover, voters are most likely to do so when their own party is not competitive, as is the case for conservative voters in DC. As a result, I am very skeptical that the (exceedingly few) non-Democratic voters that remain would suddenly choose to infiltrate a party with which they do not align en masse due to the adoption of semi-open primaries. I also suspect that conservative voters are already participating in the Democratic primaries.

These reforms are popular and spreading rapidly, perhaps so quickly that this may elevate the issue into a medium- to long-term strategic consideration in the sense that DSA electoral campaigns around the country will increasingly be run under these conditions. While not inevitable, it makes it even more important that we discuss how the particularities of a given voting system, whether RCV, primary type, or otherwise, might affect our electoral prospects — especially given the present and growing urgency of building socialist and working class power. I believe the voting system I had in Minneapolis was a better one.

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