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Ranked-choice voting can break Minnesota’s cycle of plurality winners

Coleman-Franken-Barkley, Pawlenty-Hatch-Hutchinson, Pawlenty-Moe-Penny, Ventura-Coleman-Humphrey. Minnesota has become the state of three-headed elections (maybe good) with no majority winners (not so good.)

Our last governor to win a majority of electoral support was Arne Carlson in 1994. And, once again, the stage is set for Minnesota to elect a leader who will take office with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Our system of electing candidates no longer reflects the realities of our state. The “any winner takes all” approach is a holdover from an era in which there were almost always only two parties on the ballot; it is out of step with the growing diversity of the state.

Over the last 16 years, our state’s chief executives have taken office with “mandates” of 46.7 percent, 44.4 percent and 37.0 percent of the voters’ support. Given the number of candidates on the stump, the level of political rancor and the scope of the challenges awaiting the winner, there’s no reason to expect that any candidate in 2010 will be able to buck this trend and break the 50 percent barrier — a prediction shared by political analysts Jeff Blodgett and Tom Horner at the Minneapolis Club’s “The Year in Politics” forum we attended in December. This almost-certain minority status constitutes another burden our next governor will have to shoulder along with the other demands of his or her office.

Not limited to governor’s race
Our predilection for electing minority lawmakers is not limited to the governor’s race; non-majority-winner elections are increasingly common in Minnesota. Sen. Al Franken received just 42 percent of the vote in the 2008 U.S. Senate election. In 2008, races in the 3rd and 6th Congressional Districts, in House Districts 41A and 51A, and in Senate District 16 were all won by a plurality of the vote. Since 2002, 17 state legislative races have been decided by less than a majority of voters.

Ranked-choice voting is an idea whose time has come for Minnesota.

With ranked-choice voting (also called instant runoff voting), a voter ranks his or her candidate preferences: 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice, etc. If a candidate receives a majority of votes in Round One, that candidate wins.

If not, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are divided among the remaining candidates based on voters’ second choices. If there’s still no majority winner, the process repeats until a candidate reaches a majority of continuing ballots. This runoff process is accomplished in a single election, avoiding the need for a costly and low turnout second election.

Ranked-choice voting gives all candidates a real opportunity to shape the terms of the debate and to win votes — and it motivates candidates to keep their campaigns on a higher road in terms of tone and substance.

A tested system
It is a tested and successful system used in cities across America and in democracies around the world, including Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Australia.

Count Minneapolis among that list. Last November, Minneapolis used the new system for the first time and the results were impressive. According to a survey by St. Cloud State University, voters of all ages and income and ethnic groups understood the system (95 percent of voters polled said RCV was easy to use and 90 percent said that they understand the system “perfectly” or “fairly well”). Nearly two-thirds believed it should be used in the future. Even more impressive for those of us who sat through the year-long recount process in the 2008 Senate race, there was only one defective ballot in the whole Minneapolis election.

Successful demonstrations like the one in Minneapolis are a clear indication that ranked-choice voting is an important and manageable way to help fix our struggling electoral system. It can break the cycle of plurality winners, restore the democratic principle of majority rule and make elections more competitive, meaningful, participatory and representative.

John Cairns is a former executive director of the Minnesota Business Parnership and former Minneapolis City Council member who serves on the Advisory Council of FairVote Minnesota. John C. Hottinger, a former Minnesota senator and a consultant in public policy and deliberative democracy processes, serves on FairVote’s board of directors.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 01/13/2010 - 11:08 am.

    “Our predilection for electing minority lawmakers is not limited to the governor’s race; non-majority-winner elections are increasingly common in Minnesota.”

    This is true for most state constitutional office elections in the past 12-14 years.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/13/2010 - 04:29 pm.

    Instant Runoff Voting is an idea that is on the way out. Pierce County, Washington and Apsen, Colorado recently repealed IRV and Burlington Vermont – which is often hailed as an IRV success story – is in the process of repealing it after a disasterous IRV election. The fact that FairVote had to lie and cheat to get it passed in St. Paul speaks volumes about the merits of IRV.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/14/2010 - 10:44 am.

    FairVote did not “lie and cheat.” Someone mistakenly used the word endorse instead of support.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/14/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    “the panel has concluded that the Respondent made knowingly false claims that the Minnesota DFL and the League of Women Voters “endorsed” the St.
    Paul ballot question and that it failed to obtain written permission from the national political figures before using their names as supporters of the ballot question, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 211B.02. The panel has concluded that these violations, which were reflected in approximately 40,000 pieces of campaign literature, were multiple and deliberate. They were made despite the clarity of the statutory prohibitions, and the
    Respondent remains completely unapologetic.”

    Sorry, Bernice, but this wasn’t just a mistake. The court found that FairVote made multiple and deliberate knowingly false claims. These people are liars and cheaters.

  5. Submitted by Tom Miller on 01/15/2010 - 09:41 am.

    The truly important part of IRV is the idea that the winning candidate for an elected office should received greater than 50% of votes cast. “Instant” or “ranked choice” is not necessary to guarantee that winners receive a majority.

    The idea that IRV will foster a greater diversity of political parties is well-intentioned; but again, “instant” or “ranked choice” is not necessary to achieve political diversity.

    IRV is also not necessary to prevent costly second elections.

    The most direct approach to achieve these three benefits is to eliminate primary elections and to use runoff elections in cases where no candidate achieves the 50% + 1 threshold.

    Candidate endorsements should be purely a political party function. Our current practice of primary elections wastes taxpayers’ money while forcing candidates to select a party label that may or may not reflect their true beliefs. Crossover voting also skews the viability of primary elections as a party endorsement mechanism. If party activists endorse one candidate over another, and the losing candidate truly believes he or she is the better person, let him or her prove it in a general election either as an independent or by forming a third party with other like-minded public servants.

    With IRV, a voter is forced to make choices that could become confusing with large numbers of candidates. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California on a ballot with over 300 candidates. How could a person reasonably rank them all?

    In a general election, a person would vote only for the candidate that he or she truly believes is best. The voter will seriously consider who the best leader would be, since the general election is for all the marbles (unlike a primary, that most citizens feel is not important enough to vote in).

    Should a runoff election between the top two vote-getters become necessary, these two candidates can present their case to the voting public. The voting public will have time to seriously consider each candidate, something that is not as likely to happen in ranked-choice elections.

    There will be far fewer runoff elections than primary elections, which will save money.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/15/2010 - 05:39 pm.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with being elected by a plurality vote. To the contrary, it seems to me that we know exactly where the electorate stood in the last many gubernatorial elections and that this information would be lost with instant runoff/ranked-choice voting. I do not look forward to its implementation in St. Paul.

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