The nonprofit teaching Minnesotans about ranked choice voting one beer festival at a time

Attendees of the Best of the Wurst Festival look over the ranked voting choices // Photo courtesy FairVote Minnesota

Attendees of the Best of the Wurst Festival look over the ranked voting choices // Photo courtesy FairVote Minnesota

Voting your favorite brewery to best of the fest recognition has long been a standard practice at beer festivals. But for some events, it’s the ballot itself—not the beers on it—that are the focus. Check the ballot at your next event, and chances are it’s powered by FairVote Minnesota, a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting ranked choice voting (RCV).

“There’s no better way in a very competitive, multi-competitor field than to use ranked choice voting,” says Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota. Hosting food and drink competitions to educate citizens about RCV has long been a foundation of the organization’s strategy. But for a long time this was largely limited to dessert contests hosted in private residences—until restaurateur Kim Bartmann connected with Massey in 2013.

“She’s a reformer,” Massey says. “She reformed the food industry in Minneapolis. And I saw her one day in her restaurant and she said, food reform and election reform, they go together. We need to do more partnerships.”

The conversation resulted in instituting a ranked choice ballot at Bartmann’s collaboration competition In Cahoots!—a partnership that has persisted for the last five years. FairVote Minnesota also rolls out RCV ballots at its own annual fundraiser Best of the Wurst, where locally made sausages crowd the ballot. This year, volunteers in bright blue and orange shirts mingled with brat-feasting attendees, offering information and advice—not on who to vote for, but how. The goal: demonstrate the power and simplicity of ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting has been used in Minneapolis municipal elections since 2009, and in St. Paul since 2011. It operates by counting voters’ second-choice picks in the event that their first choice does not receive enough votes to continue on to the next round of voting. (For a detailed explanation, Minneapolis.gov offers an explanation visualized with Post-It Notes, and FairVote Minnesota explains it on their website.)

The 2018 In Cahoots Festival in NE Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Eric Melzer

The 2018 In Cahoots Festival in NE Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo by Eric Melzer

Advocates of RCV assert it dismantles the power of the two-party system by allowing voters to prioritize an outlying candidate without worrying they are pulling support from a more popular candidate. Dissenters counter it is a confusing process and prolongs the delivery of election results.

FairVote Minnesota partnered with Sociable Cider Werks to host Best of the Wurst. Sociable co-founder Jim Watkins sits on the FairVote Minnesota board and said the ranked choice voting process has natural appeal to fest-goers. “Beer geeks like to argue about the best beer,” Watkins says. “This is an opportunity to solve that in a very mathematical, rigorous way.”

Watkins was introduced to FairVote Minnesota and invited to join the board at a 2012 mayoral election after-party hosted at Pat’s Tap (one of Bartmann’s properties). His involvement—he also serves on the Minnesota Brewers Guild board—provides FairVote Minnesota with a direct line to the brewery community. Once brewers and restaurants understand the issue is non-partisan, Watkins says, more often than not they’re game to participate.

“A brewery owner is by definition a conundrum: We’re a bunch of bearded hippies who run businesses,” Watkins says. “Small breweries are disruptors in our industry. […] Budweiser owns upwards of 80 percent of the total volume. So it’s our job to unseat these established power structures, if you will.”

Ranked choice voting, according to Watkins, encourages consensus-building campaign styles that mirror the collaborative nature of the brewery industry. “We understand the value of cross promotion and co-branding,” he says. “And two-party politics doesn’t allow you to do that. It’s very adversarial. Ranked choice voting—by definition, you have to be a coalition builder.”

According to Massey, the impact of these events isn’t measured in specific numbers. Anecdotal evidence, along with email list growth, indicates effectiveness as an awareness strategy. She estimated that two-thirds of Best of the Wurst attendees submitted ballots, with most coming in during the final few minutes of the event via a newly introduced online system.

“Our success will be measured when all of the ‘best of’ are doing ranked voting,” Massey says. But she acknowledged this goal is ambitious—and poses some technical challenges. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild has expressed interest in more partnerships, but larger beer fests don’t operate like regular elections given their unpredictable field (brewers sometimes don’t nail down what they’re bringing to a festival until the night before) and vastly larger pool of candidates (regular elections don’t contain hundreds of options).

But there have been successes, including St. Louis Park’s vote to adopt ranked choice voting in 2018. To assist with the campaign, FairVote Minnesota helped liquor stores and breweries organize ranked choice events. Massey says the contests simultaneously help FairVote Minnesota reach more people while helping businesses reach more potential customers.

“Most of our tickets were sold to people who would have come to a sausage festival [Best of the Wurst] no matter who sponsored it. And that’s good,” Massey says. “We’re not here to preach at these events. We really want people to have fun and hopefully go away and know that, well, if ranked choice voting means I can have this much fun, then I’m all in.”