As Minneapolis hunkers down in fear in advance of the verdict in the trial of the police officer accused in the death of George Floyd, it’s worth keeping in mind a key factor that brought anti-police officials into office there. It’s something that New York will have in common with that city for the first time: the unforeseen potential consequences of ranked-choice voting.
In Minneapolis, that new voting system — which is about to be debut in the upcoming New York mayoral primary this June — set the stage for police budget cuts and subsequent lawlessness, by making it possible for a soft-on-crime second-choice candidate to vault to the top.
In 2017, the longtime president of the Minneapolis City Council, considered the most powerful political position in the city, won the largest number of votes in her ward but lost as a result of ranked-choice vote transfers (i.e., votes counted for a second-choice candidate if his or her first choice is eliminated after no one gets more than 50 percent). In such systems, voters can list their second, third and so on choices — so if their top pick finishes low in a multicandidate pack, the vote goes to one of their lower picks.
Barb Johnson, who had held office for almost 20 years, was a strong law-and-order Democrat, as per her campaign literature: “Public safety is a serious concern for 4th Ward residents. While the number of property crimes has dropped significantly, the incidents of shootings, shots fired, and aggravated assaults have become intolerable.
“Barb has met with judges to help them understand the impact of gun crimes on our neighborhoods. . . . Barb supports increasing the number of officers in the Minneapolis Police Department.”
Johnson also supported enforcement of broken windows-style anti-crime laws, such as bans on lurking and public spitting. She was defeated, thanks to “transfer” votes (second-choice votes from voters whose first choice finished low), by a first-time, left-wing candidate who went on to help lead the city’s recent “defund the police” movement. Phillipe Cunningham pushed to eliminate the Minneapolis police as a stand-alone department, first raising the idea in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Cunningham spoke in front of a “Defund the Police” banner. The City Council then sharply cut the police budget by diverting funds to social services.
Cunningham hoped to scale back the force by 183 officers. As he put it: “We really do have to co-create the new system of public safety.” He became a key vote in far-left voting bloc that ushered in a new council president.
In the wake of such rhetoric, Minneapolis, scarred by the riots and police-station burning of the George Floyd protests, has been hit by a violent crime wave. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports: “Violent crimes soared by 21% in Minneapolis (in 2020). . . . The city recorded 5,422 violent crime incidents, including homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, according to preliminary year-end Minneapolis police statistics. That is a dramatic jump over the previous five years, which averaged roughly 4,496 such crimes.” What’s more, some 200 officers have applied to leave the department because of post-traumatic stress and 65 have already left its ranks.
There’s a lesson here for New Yorkers. Ranked-choice voting has a superficial appeal, offering the hope of voters coalescing in a consensus, rather than through the traditional “first past the post” system. But in Minneapolis, it led, instead, to dramatic and ultimately radical change. This is the ongoing lesson of progressive “reforms”: unforeseen, unconsidered consequences.
For New Yorkers, it’s important to think about voting in the new system, in a new way: strategically. It’s important to consider second and third-choice votes with special care — and even to consider “bullet” voting, or just choosing one top candidate. Transfer votes are consequential.
In Minneapolis, long-time centrist Barb Johnson led her top rival in the top spot by more than 2 percent of the vote — but wound up losing, despite the fact that a plurality of voters favored her. The impact on the city was cataclysmic.
In Gotham, a lot of second- and third-place votes for an untested but widely recognized candidate such as Andrew Yang could result in his vaulting over a tested manager such as Ray McGuire, for instance.
Candidates and campaign managers must approach the upcoming Democratic primary in a way to guard against their own voters supporting rivals just to fill out their ballots. What may seem to be costless expressions of support can turn out to be very costly.
Howard Husock is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.