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Ranked Choice Voting Exercise: Pick South Dakota’s Best Former Politician!

Ranked choice voting is going to get a high-profile test in New York City’s mayoral contest next month. Some folks are worried that New Yorkers don’t know enough about ranked choice voting to make it work, but come on: Minneapolis and St. Paul have been using it for a decade. Several other cities plus the state of Maine use ranked choice voting, and 23 Utah cities are trying it out this year. If Mormons can do it, so can Gotham!

To put ranked choice voting into a South Dakota context, some friends of the blog have put together an online exercise based on South Dakota history. The poll asks voters to pick the “best former South Dakota politician” from among these seven politicos:

  • George McGovern
  • Dick Kneip
  • Bill Janklow
  • Larry Pressler
  • Tom Daschle
  • Dennis Daugaard
  • Stephanie Herseth Sandlin

Yeah, yeah, save your fussing about who else should’ve been on the list (George S. Mickelson! Tom BerryPeter NorbeckRichard F. Pettigrew!) and vote… not just for your one favorite, but for your second choice, third choice, fourth choice, and so on and watch what happens!

As of my check this morning, there have been 72 votes. On the first count, McGovern, Janklow, and Daschle come out close at the top as first choices, but no one breaks 30%, let alone the 50% required to win.

SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19.
SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 1.

Thus, by RCV rules, we drop the lowest vote-getter (Pressler) and anyone who got no votes (Kneip), and count again. In Round 2, the ballots of the Pressler pickers now go to those voters’ second choices… and that’s where we start seeing the interesting preferences:

SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 2
SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 2

The Pressler voters appear to lean Democratic. Absent Pressler, they turn to McGovern and Herseth Sandlin in apparently equal numbers. Assigning their second choices keeps McGovern at the top, but they aren’t nearly enough to bring McGovern over 50%. Nor are the Pressler second choices enough to raise Herseth Sandlin above Daugaard. In Round 2, SHS is the new last placer, so now she drops from contention and we count again! Whee!

SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 3.
SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 3.

SHS’s voters now see their votes go to their second choices. Pressler people who picked SHS second now see their third choices count. That collection of preferences boost McGovern, Daugaard, and Daschle. But frontrunner McGovern still is nowhere near 50%, so we drop new last-placer Daugaard and go to Round 4:

SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 4.
SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 4.

Finally, the Daugaard voters give Janklow some second-place action. Janklow gets the biggest bump now, as we’d expect from the elimination of the most recent and most faithful Republican on the list. McGovern creeps up again, but dang! the top three remain as tight as they were in Round 1, no one has a majority, and the remaining bottom two are tied. What do we do?

This RCV exercise resorts to the same democracy-thwarting method we use in current election ties: we flip a coin. Janklow wins this toss, so Daschle is out, and his second choices (and likely some Daugaarder third choices, SHSer fourth choices, and maybe even some Presslerer fifth choices) now count in the final battle:

SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 5.
SD historical poll, RankIt, 2021.05.19, Round 5.

Dropping Daschle pours a whole lot of second-bests into McGovern’s pile and lifts him to a 61% majority.

This exercise demonstrates that candidates would want to approach a ranked choice voting contest similarly to how they approach South Dakota House races, where candidates compete for two available seats. In such a race, you don’t necessarily have to be everyone’s favorite, but you want to be likable enough to be lots of people’s second choice. In this exercise, eventual winner McGovern ranked first among only 29% of voters, but a lot of his opponents’ voters were willing to settle for McGovern as second best. In contrast, Janklow had nearly as many first-place votes as McGovern, but he didn’t win much second-choice support from his opponents’ voters. This small and unscientific sample thus seems to affirm the conventional wisdom that voters either loved Janklow or hated him and suggests that McGovern was a more likable guy.

Notice one factor that didn’t pop up until the last vote: “inactive votes”. It appears that three of the 72 participants in this poll got tired after four votes and didn’t mark a fifth choice. They marked Pressler, SHS, Daugaard, and Daschle in some order, then looked at the remaining names on the ballot and didn’t find the enthusiasm to click one more box. If voters don’t mark their rankings all the way down, it is possible that a ranked choice vote requiring more rounds to reach 50% will eliminate undermarked ballots from the final count. So conceivably,  a candidate who wins by ranked choice voting may not win by a majority of all ballots cast, but only by a majority of all ballots cast by people who cared enough to mark their preferences all the way down the ballot.

But apathy whittles the majority threshold in regular elections as well. So under ranked choice voting, if you really don’t like a candidate, even if you don’t have a first choice, you’d better mark your “absolutely under no circumstances” turkey last and then fill in numbers for everyone else on the ballot.

But hey, click on the survey, try out ranked choice voting, and see how much you can skew this fun exercise in picking South Dakota’s favorite former politician.


  1. Mark Anderson 2021-05-19 13:34

    I prefer James Abourezk, he got in and got out. That did allow Larry Press Release to get in but who knew? At least Abourezk helped the tribes more than anyone, before or since. The song BIA were not your Indians Floyd Westerman sums it up.

  2. Donald Pay 2021-05-19 14:20

    I like ranked choice voting, but I’m not sure it’s practical beyond, say, voting for prom king and queen. Recounts would be too difficult. Who really trusts the computers to figure all this out, and report it out correctly?

    For example, Janklow before Daschle? Daschle had so much less margin for error than Janklow, it wasn’t even a contest who was better. Daschle, hands down. It would have taken a miracle for Janklow to lose, but Daschle had to thread the needle on every issue.

    Also, Pressler. Much, much better politician than Janklow. He started out in the primary challenging a party picked favorite, and beat her. Then he beat an incumbent Congressman. He wasn’t a great people person, but he knew how to pick his time and his issues.

    I would say Tim Johnson was pretty darn good, too.

  3. Porter Lansing 2021-05-19 18:52

    How about a list of current SD politicians liberals want on the “former” list.

    There’s a child molesting chiropractor, an obese softball player, an ambulance chaser and so many more.

    You know who you are without naming names.

    e.g. When I say “the big liar” 95 % of Americans know exactly who’s being referenced by this new title.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-19 18:59

    Tim Johnson lost one election in his life, when he ran for Chair of the College Young Democrats.It was his campaign managers fault. After that he was undefeated, for States Attorney, State House of Reps, State Senate, US House and US Senate. Something like 14 consecutive elections.That’s a pretty good record for a South Dakota Democrat.

  5. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-19 19:11

    Well…disappointed Dick Kneip was shut out and apparently forgotten. He was a terrific, one on one retail politician, with endless energy. Ran and won the governorship 3 times a record only exceeded by Janklow. And again, Kneip was a Democrat running statewide in South Dakota.

  6. Donald Pay 2021-05-19 21:15

    Arlo. The best one on one retail politician of the bunch in my opinion. Janklow was good with his people, but Kneip worked everyone. Beside that, he and the group of people surrounding him were great at governance. He delivered on modernizing the executive branch. I’m surprised he’s rated so low, but then you have to be a certain age to know how good he was. I volunteered on his first campaign.

  7. grudznick 2021-05-19 21:49

    Mr. Pay, you are indeed mostly correct about Governor Kneip. He pulled off a feat that could not be pulled today. Not even by Governor Jackley. And they built a statue to him, I am told, with his hand out and a grin on his maw. Well deserved.

  8. Porter Lansing 2021-05-19 22:41

    Dick Kneip 👍

  9. Mark Anderson 2021-05-20 17:50

    You know Donald, right after graduating in art from the University, my first job was in the Kneip administration. I had a job working with the computer boys from a school in Illinois, they all went to the same school. and my job was to prepare each page of print for publication. The computers at that time couldn’t even print up larger type. So it was simply a job of collaging stuff together to make each page readable. Cut, paste and glue. I also put pages together like Native American statistics with white statistics etc. Three pages a day. My job had an end date so that was great for me but thats another story. I really wonder where those boys are, they offered to have a wild week end to help me finish the statistical book off but I declined the offer. I did play tennis with one of them from time to time. Where the book went, who knows.

  10. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-20 21:16

    Mark…check the government department at USD. their archives, especially if you know the approximate date of publication. Dr. Farber and Dr. Klem collected all those state government publications. Klem ran the Government Research Bureau at USD for many years and I’m certain their is a depository of Dr. Farber’s papers. If that doesn’t work, check the South Dakota Historical Society and Archives. Back in the day, when the new Museum opened, Governor Janklow sent people around to collect “historically significant documents” from each department. Perhaps that practice continues. We do have a State Archivist and the Historical Society is excellent about responding to requests.

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