Minnesota's co-op op-ed page
Fall is in the air, and the kids are really back in school, able to think and learn now that summer has let go its hold. This fall is bringing some steep learning for all of us, in the form of big changes in buying health insurance with the launch of Minnesota’s health care exchange MNsure, and for some of us, the work (opportunity) of making our choices for mayor and other municipal offices through Ranked Choice Voting. Both encompass large-scale systems changes that are bound to confuse and irritate as they stumble toward implementation.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) was in place the last time Minneapolis residents voted for mayor, but this election is a true test with multiple candidates on the ballot. I have read numerous articles and talked with many people who favor or oppose RCV. I have had the system personally demonstrated to me with multiple colors of sticky notes of which I had to rank my favorite colors in descending order of preference. I fully understood how the counting would work through this hands-on activity.
I believe that our systems of narrowing down the selection of candidates is flawed. Turnout for caucuses and primaries is so low that many voices are not being captured in that process. Turnout for the 2005 Minneapolis primary was only 15 percent of registered voters. RCV allows that narrowing process to happen in the moment of one election day in November, when turnout tends to be highest. In a MinnPost article this week, former Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors Don Fraser and George Latimer argue that RCV takes advantage of this higher turnout and allows more voters to be a part of the process.
I also believe the examples of RCV working in other communities. San Francisco stands out for having RCV in place long enough to see results. Since 2004, the city has had 45 elected offices in which RCV was in place. Today, 16 of 18 officeholders elected under RCV are people of color, which is the highest percentage of any diverse U.S. city. Two San Francisco proponents of RCV argue that “Ranked-choice voting is well-suited to cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, which have a high degree of racial/ethnic, social and cultural diversity, a high level of political activism and mobilization, and multiple axes of political conflict.”
I’m not sure if Minneapolis is one of those cities – yet. The current round of RCV implementation here is imperfect in that ranking our top three of 35 mayoral candidates could well take us in more than three directions. A poll released by the Star Tribune on Sunday showed no clear frontrunner, and voters who are undecided (16 percent) outnumbered support for nearly any of the other candidates. A subsequent MinnPost analysis of the poll results shows that if RCV were applied to those numbers, Don Samuels (also with only 16 percent of first choice votes) would win against Not Sure in the ninth round of counting.
Count me among the undecided, even though I read the paper every day and have attended several candidates’ forums. In this field of candidates, not particularly representative of the diversity of our city, very representative of the heavy leaning toward DFLers, it is difficult to distinguish enough among them to choose one, much less three. This is not a problem of understanding RCV, but it is a problem the process needs to iron out in order for RCV to work well.
In other big change, last week brought news of the struggle to make health insurance options available and accessible under the Affordable Care Act and the new Minnesota health exchange, now known as MNsure. The process for making $4 million in grants available to community organizations that will work to help enroll people in MNsure was called into question by community groups and legislators. MNsure leadership was criticized for failing to award funding to organizations with a record of working in African American and African immigrant communities, two communities that face high barriers in access to health care. The good news is that the MNsure board quickly found an additional $750,000 in funds to support more outreach in these communities.
Another struggle in implementation has been known for some time, and will hopefully be changed next year. The community groups that help enroll Minnesotans in MNsure receive payment for each person they enroll. But the payment for enrolling people in commercial plans is $70, while the payment for enrolling low-income people in a government-funded health plan is only $25 per person. This mismatch in incentives and in the funding available to organizations working with poor communities runs against the goals of the Affordable Care Act.
Both RCV and MNsure are in that tricky place of transitioning from the work of advocating for change to the big work of real life implementation. I believe both can be successful. But accomplishing the goals of both strategies will require leaders and the rest of us to exercise a different kind of advocacy.
Be open to hard questions. It would be tempting to attack back at critics of these changes. But the questions we raise are often real questions stemming from real problems that become apparent in implementation. Listening to those questions is an opportunity to make big systems change work better. Thankfully, community groups spoke up when they saw an imbalance in MNsure funding for connecting with communities. Hopefully, candidates and RCV advocates will step up to the work of making sure voters have the information we need to make informed decisions.
Look for solutions. Part of listening to challenging questions is moving to solutions – and not to defending an always imperfect system. RCV and MNsure are not going to solve all of our voter participation and health care problems. But if we accept them as a step, we can also think about ways for them to work better. Could different kinds of voter education and engagement happen that connects communities to the process? What are some creative ways to communicate who the candidates are and what they stand for to demographically diverse communities (we are not San Francisco, but we are more diverse than our selection of candidates)? How can MNsure invest equitably in education and community outreach so that those who have faced the greatest barriers to health care have the greatest opportunity under this new system?
Be patient. Change takes time, and after all the work of enacting it, let’s be patient enough to see it through. That does not mean standing by uncritically. Rather, asking the hard questions, demanding creative solutions, and being part of the making the system work better requires a constructively critical eye.
I want accessible and affordable health care for our communities and I want democracy and voting to work better so that our voices are really part of the process. Although I am skeptical of plenty of pieces of the big changes in the works, I do support the goals they are after. Letting that skepticism become a roadblock to change doesn’t help. So on to the next candidates’ forum.