Ranked-choice voting fails to boost diversity

In early November, the city of Eastpointe in Macomb County had Michigan’s first-ever ranked-choice election to select two City Council seats. This measure was complex, ineffective and unnecessary.

The new election method, in which voters are required to rank all candidates on their ballot from most preferable to least, was prescribed over the summer to settle a complaint filed against the city by the U.S. Department of Justice just before President Barack Obama left office in 2017.

The Justice Department alleged that since no African-Americans had been voted into office despite more than a third of the city’s population being black, racism must be at work. The department concluded that since city elections didn’t produce the results it thought were desirable, the city was in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

As a remedy, Eastpointe had to put in place ranked voting. Voters were asked to rank four candidates, and winners were the two who got 33.3% plus one additional vote after officials tallied all the rankings.

It didn’t work, at least not to produce the diversity the Justice Department demanded. Newly elected council members Sarah Lucido and Harvey Curley are white.

“Most people believe that the results would have been the same with a traditional vote,” Lucido says. “I don’t think it made too much of a difference.”

The city did elect its first black mayor, Monique Owens, but that was with a traditional city-wide vote. In fact, Owens had been the first black city councilwoman as well, elected by traditional vote the same year the DOJ filed suit against the city.

Assistant City Manager Brian Fairbrother says Election Day came off without a hitch, thanks to a roughly $30,000 effort to explain to voters how ranked voting works.

Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative, spent four years at the DOJ coordinating enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and says he doesn’t think ranked-choice elections are a good idea.

“It’s bizarre that the DOJ would come in and push ranked-choice voting,” he says.

The complaint against at-large voting in elections is that it takes away a sizable minority’s ability to elect their preferred candidate, but von Spakovsky doesn’t think ranked-choice voting is the remedy.

The standard, more acceptable solution, according to von Spakovsky, is to create or redraw voting district lines to make “minority majorities” — districts in which the city-wide minority has a majority voice. And then elect council members to represent those districts.

Spakovsky argues that ranked-choice elections actually rob voters of the chance to make informed decisions at the polls, and that runoff elections are a better way for candidates to reach voters about their platforms.

Per the settlement agreement, Eastpointe has to hold another ranked-choice election in 2021. After that, the city should quit the practice and get back to democracy as usual.


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