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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.)

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.