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Minnesota elections are already a national leader, but could they be better?

Minnesotans stand in line to vote at Brackett Park in Minneapolis on Election Day.
MinnPost photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Minnesotans stand in line to vote at Brackett Park in Minneapolis on Election Day.

For the most part, Minnesota has a strong elections process, and the state even leads the nation in some areas, such as same-day registration and the use of paper ballots and automatic audits.

But, is there a better way to run Minnesota's elections?

Election watchers around the state have been weighing in on a lot of election issues – from a few minor tweaks, such as moving the state's primary earlier than September, to major changes, such as extending the time when citizens can cast their votes, requiring a photo ID in order to vote, and moving to a system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).


Here's a look at some of the high-profile issues, starting with the most controversial.

Instant Runoff Voting
Some see the recount in the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken as a prime example of why the state should move to IRV. Lots of people seem to like it. But there are others who abhor it and hope never to see a ranked ballot in the state of Minnesota – or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter.

IRV is a process in which the electorate ranks candidates by preference: first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If a candidate is clearly determined with a majority (50 percent plus one) of first-place votes, then he or she wins. If not, the instant runoff is triggered. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and those votes are redistributed to citizens' second choice. If the first redistribution doesn't produce a majority winner, the process continues by eliminating the next lowest candidate and redistributing those votes until one candidate reaches a majority.

Proponents of IRV say it's a better way to run elections, especially when third-party candidates are on the ballot.

"Many people in the DFL and Republican parties wish the Green, Independence and Libertarian parties would go away," says Jack Uldrich, an Independence Party member who has run for U.S. House and Senate seats. "But we're not going away. Especially here in Minnesota. The question becomes how to create a system that allows us to flourish, and to elect people by majority. The best solution is IRV."

Its proponents argue that the current plurality system presumes just two candidates in a race, and when there are more, such as the Coleman-Franken Senate race that also included the IP's Dean Barkley, the system breaks down.

"What a debacle," says Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, the local branch of a national organization pushing IRV.

"If a significant third-party candidate gets cast aside as a 'spoiler,' the message doesn't get through," says Massey, "And voters lose out."

She says voters want and deserve choice. But in the current election system, voters don't always choose their preferred candidate "because they worry their vote is wasted or it will help elect their least favorite candidate," says Massey.

IRV would remedy the spoiler effect, she says, because every vote is counted. Massey also believes it would promote more civil elections.

MinnPost photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

"Negative campaigning is a hallmark of two-way races," says Massey. "With IRV, candidates stay on the issues because they want as many first-choice votes as they can get, but also want second-choice votes. So they don't go negative because they don't want to alienate voters by attacking their opponents."

While IRV could be seen as a benefit to the Independence and Green parties that regularly run candidates in Minnesota, one of the state's major parties, the DFL Party also supports it, adopting IRV as part of its platform earlier this year.

"It allows voters to express their preferences more honestly," says DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez. "It's better to have an outcome with a majority vote, instead of being stuck with electing the minority candidate."

Melendez and others point out that the choice of Minnesota's governor has not been decided by a majority of the electorate in the past three election cycles (Ventura, with  37 percent in 1998, and  Pawlenty, with 44 percent in 2002 and 47 percent in 2006).

IRV is used in Australia and Ireland and in a small handful of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., and several counties, most recently Pierce County, Wash. FairVote's Massey says several more cities are scheduled to implement IRV, including Berkeley, Calif.;  Aspen, Colo.; and of course, Minneapolis (that is, if a lawsuit doesn't stop it from moving forward).

In 2006, Minneapolis approved IRV with 65 percent voter approval. It's supposed to go into effect for next year's city elections, but the Minnesota Voters Alliance is suing the city of Minneapolis to stop it.

The group's director, Andy Cilek, says the only reason IRV passed in Minneapolis and in other municipalities is because "the bureaucratic elite shoved it down the throats of the people."

Cilek says IRV is "fatally flawed," because it violates both Minnesota law and the state Constitution. Cilek says he's confident his group will take its case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

"IRV puts blindfolds on the voters," he says. "(With IRV) voters don't know if they're helping or hurting the cause of their favorite candidate. The court has said we do right in upholding the right of the citizen to cast a vote for the candidate of his choice unimpaired by additional votes by others."

Cilek also believes IRV is unconstitutional because it allows some people in effect to vote more than once. For example, if you pick the winning candidate, you get one vote, but if you choose a losing candidate, then your second-choice, and maybe even third-choice votes also might be counted.

The alliance's case against the city could be heard as early as next week in Hennepin County court.

Other cities in Minnesota, particularly St. Paul and Duluth, are looking at IRV. St. Paul is waiting for the outcome of the Minneapolis case before moving ahead with plans to put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

FairVote's Massey says IRV has survived constitutional challenges in other states, and she expects Minneapolis' IRV measure to prevail, too.

Legislative issues could again include photo IDs
While IRV plays out in the courts, there are a few other ideas lawmakers could be wrestling with next session.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says requiring photo ID for voting is "a big deal for me and my caucus."

Seifert says the razor-thin margin in the Coleman-Franken race underscores the importance of ballot security. He says polls show that more than 80 percent of Minnesotans approve of requiring photo IDs.

"People expect it," says Seifert. "You have to use ID to get on an airplane, or buy a glass a beer. You even need a photo ID to get into the Barack Obama celebration party. It's a ludicrous argument to be opposed to that simple reform."

Previous efforts to pass such legislation have failed. Republican proposals that narrowly passed the House in 2001 and 2006 were never taken up by the Senate. In 2006, the proposal also included requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.

Seifert says he's nervous about reports from other states alleging voter fraud that surfaced during the presidential campaign.

"There were reports of ACORN [the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now]  almost bribing people to vote a certain way," says Seifert. "And they say ACORN double- and triple-registered people."

"There's just a lot of skepticism about how secure voting is, and that people are who they say they are," he says.

Seifert says passing a photo ID law this coming session is a "high priority" for House Republicans.

"We're going to push the envelope on this and see if there are ways we can negotiate with the Democrats to get a simple reform or two," he says.

But Seifert's "simple reform" may have a tough time in the DFL-controlled House.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) says her caucus won't support it. "We have a fundamental disagreement on this," she says.

Kelliher notes that voters in Minnesota already must swear an oath that they are of legal age and show proof that they live at the place of residence listed on their registration. The state, she notes, has penalties in place if someone's not telling the truth.

"Republicans don't like same-day registration and they don't like to make it easier for people to vote," says Kelliher. "(Seifert) is following the party line on this issue."

She sees a photo ID requirement as an impediment to voting, particularly for the poor and the elderly.

 She cites, for example, the grandfather of one of her constituents – a World War II veteran. "He no longer drives and doesn't have a state ID," says Kelliher. "I don't think he should be disenfranchised to vote. There's just no evidence that this is an issue in Minnesota. We have safe and secure elections with very high participation."

'Convenience voting' measures gain in popularity
Kelliher says voting should be as easy as possible and favors "convenience voting" measures.

Minnesota leads the country in convenience voting in the sense that it is one of just seven states that allows for same-day voter registration. It also allows absentee voting up to 30 days before Election Day (by mail or in person) for people who have a legitimate excuse for being away from the polling place, such as travel, illness or religious reasons.

Some find the excuse requirement impractical and want to remove it and create the infrastructure to allow early voting.

A bill last biennium calling for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says he hopes the governor will change his mind and expects to see a similar bill introduced again.

"The process of elections is being adjusted to meet the demands of modern busy life in most other states," says Ritchie. "And in this state, and in editorials, the voters have said out loud and with actions that they want to be able to vote, and they need a system of elections that allows them to vote in a way that works with their life."

Early voting is gaining in popularity nationwide. Thirty-two states allow no-excuse pre-Election Day in-person voting – either early voting on a voting machine or in-person absentee voting. States with such early voting set up centers or "super-precincts" 15 to 30 days before the election.

The number choosing early voting more than doubled  in the states where it's allowed, according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

The center's director, Paul Gronke, says in 2000, 14 percent of Americans cast early ballots. This election, the number is 30 percent to 33 percent.

The center's reporting shows that the largest percentage of early in-person voters – 75 percent – came in Colorado, North Carolina and New Mexico. "And Oregon has fully gone to a vote-by-mail system, and all but two counties in Washington state have vote by mail," he says.

Soon, every state, including Minnesota, may be forced to have some form of early voting. Gronke says pending federal legislation sponsored by Hillary Rodham Clinton and others would mandate no-excuse absentee voting and a 15-day early-voting period nationwide for all federal elections.

Seifert, however, says Minnesota's current same-day registration and absentee procedures make it "pretty convenient right now (for voters). If you vote absentee, you have to list a reason, but it's a pretty open process. You check a box saying you're absent from the precinct, no questions asked."

Seifert says he's always been skeptical of same-day registration and feels that it's open to abuse. He cites Carleton College as an example of potential problems but doesn't accuse voters there of wrongdoing.

"Seventy-seven percent of Carleton students are not from Minnesota," says Seifert. "With same-day registration, how can you be 100 percent sure they're voting in Minnesota and not in another state as well?"

Earlier primaries?
Moving the primary date earlier than September is probably the only reform that has bipartisan support.

Secretary of State Ritchie says running a primary and general election eight weeks apart is difficult, especially for overseas voters.

"We need more days between the primary and the general election," he says. "For soldiers [living overseas], it's about having the capacity to get their ballots out and back within narrow timeframes. Another 30 days would really help."

An earlier date also would be better for candidates who may have just gone through a grueling primary and need more time to prepare for the general election.

"Most of our time in the process is spent giving parties eight months for choosing the partisan nominees," says the DFL's Melendez. "Then the voters have just eight weeks to get to know the candidates. That does not make sense."

For some reason, even though it comes up nearly every legislative session, moving the primary day has never gained enough traction to become law.

That could be because parties can't agree on which month the primary should move to. June and August are the two perennially choices.

Speaker Kelliher favors June: "Probably early June would be best when school is still in session. August in Minnesota doesn't make sense with state fairs and going to the cabin. June makes a lot more sense."

Seifert, saying June is too early, prefers August, before the State Fair.

"The candidate filing deadline is mid-July," he says. "If the primary is in June, the filing would be in March, probably. I have to recruit 134 candidates. It's not wise to frontload too early, to be registering for office while the Legislature is in session. It's better to be filing in the summer, rather than while debating at Capitol. It's too messy. August is better."

Minnesota a leader in auditing and paper ballots
Minnesota has a national reputation for running fair and clean elections. Measures that enhance that reputation include one of the state's newer laws, which requires random election audits.

In 2004, the Legislature required automatic auditing after each election for gubernatorial, presidential, congressional and U.S. Senate races. The law went into effect for the 2006 election, and the audit for the 2008 election is being carried out right now in every county.

"Post-election auditing is essential for independent verification of outcomes," says Mark Halvorson, Minnesota director of Citizens for Election Integrity, a nonpartisan group that helps states pass audit laws.

Halvorsen says only 17 states have audit laws and most are inadequate, compared with Minnesota's, which requires that at least two randomly selected precincts be audited in every county (and a greater number of precincts in cities with larger populations). The audit must be done by hand recount, which is made easier by Minnesota's use of paper ballots.

"We'd really like to see a model similar to Minnesota's exported to other states," he says.

Two years ago, the audit law's author, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, helped strengthen it by requiring the paper ballot to be the official ballot in terms of results (as opposed to computer records). It's a small but crucial change to the legislation, he says.

"You can mark the paper ballot, and that does constitute a very clear record of a voter's intent," says Hilty. "The scanner has to be programmed. It's a piece of hardware, and there are ways it can fail."

Hilty says he could see some additional tweaks to the audit legislation this session that would expand the audit to constitutional office races, with an option for state legislative races.

Marisa Helms can be reached at mhelms [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (7)

Andy Cilek of the MN (Republican) Voters Alliance (headquartered in Eden Prairie) insults the people of Minneapolis (who he is suing) by saying that the only reason they voted for IRV is "the bureaucratic elite shoved it down the throats of the people." Oh honestly.

Minneapolis voters supported IRV because it will streamline our elections process, ensure a majority winner, and bring forth better democracy. Additionally, and this is a crucial point, IRV eliminates the need for costly primary elections.

Cilek's organization's mission is to require partisan primaries for city elections, something Minneapolis and St. Paul do not have. Enacting such a system gives Republicans a better chance of being on a general election ballot--and that is what Cilek's organization is all about. That is why they oppose IRV and want to require ID's at the polls (which disenfranchises renters and students).

Who are the "bureaucratic elites" and how did they "shove [IRV] down" the people's throats, Mr. Cilek? Where's the evidence please, not just vague innuendos and insults to us Minneapolitans.

And explain how a person gets more votes than I do if my first choice candidate is still there to be counted? I get to vote for my choice in every round of counting. If you picked a candidate who was eliminated for being in last place, you get to vote for your 2nd choice. That's one vote for me and one for you in each round. Nice try confusing "vote" with "candidate", but in effect it won't work. Minneapolitans are too smart to fall for it.

Voting in an IRV election cannot hurt your candidate. You'd have to know how everyone else voted when you voted and then figure out how to vote to hurt your candidate. No rational voter would be interested in doing that nor would anybody would be able to. Nor can you cite a single example from a real world election where that happened.

#1 -- Andy Cilek of MN Voters Alliance calls IRV "fatally flawed," because he claims it's unconstitutional -- though in fact, IRV has prevailed in previous constitutional challenges. Many people see this challenge of his as a costly red herring.

#2 - Cilek also says "IRV puts blindfolds on the voters. (With IRV) voters don't know if they're helping or hurting the cause of their favorite candidate."

The simple and honest response to this is that you can't hurt your favorite candidate by voting for her, that is, by giving her/him your first-choice vote. You vote your favorite candidate #1, your second favorite #2, your third favorite 3, and you don't give votes to people you don't like. How difficult is this? Where is the "blind-fold?" Using terms like "blind-folded" reveals more about the manipulative tactics of the protester than it reveals about IRV.

#3 -- Quoted from the original article above: "Cilek also believes IRV is unconstitutional because it allows some people in effect to vote more than once. For example, if you pick the winning candidate, you get one vote, but if you choose a losing candidate, then your second-choice, and maybe even third-choice votes also might be counted."

My sense is this: The key to the concept of "one man, one vote," is that a rich man's votes should count no more than a poor man's, that a landowner's vote isn't worth more than his tenant's, that a white person's vote isn't worth more than a black person's vote. IRV *does not* give more votes to one person than to other; rather, it allows a voter to rank preference; it allows a voter to say, "I like person Q the best, but if it comes down to A or Z, I choose A."

By recognizing a voter's true preference, IRV encourages more thoughtful dialogue, and it more accurately assesses the population's true beliefs and opinions. By any definition based on fairness to both the whole and to the individual, IRV does not give one voter "more votes" than another. It simply allows a truer manifestation of actual preference, rather than forcing a voter to choose between "preference" and "strategy."

Who benefits when a voter must say to herself -- I really like J, but I'm afraid K will win, so I will vote for X instead.

Nobody benefits in that situation -- though Fear and Greed always see danger in change.

Kelly, I agree that Mr. Cilek's statement is hyperbole and perhaps even an insult to the clear choice of the majority of Minneapolis' voters. But based on my own interactions with MVA, I'd say that you are also being unfair to them by painting them as a bunch of Republicans with a mission that is so easily boiled down to getting partisan primaries and disenfranchising voters.

I've sat through open meetings in St. Paul in which proponents have made compelling arguments for IRV and opponents have made compelling arguments against it. I think both sides have legitimate arguments, as is usually the case in a policy-based discussion. I've also talked with Mr. Cilek several times, and clearly he is passionate in his beliefs about the flaws of IRV. He truly does seem concerned about the dilution of a vote in any way, shape or form.

In the end I disagree with him and the opponents of IRV for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I buy into the notion that lower governmental units (cities or counties within states, states within the federal system) are often ideal incubators for democracy, allowing for a variety of experiments in what policies to pursue and how to pursue them. And I'd like to see if the results of IRV line up with the claims made by its proponents.

I have my doubts about some claims. I've yet to see or hear evidence that convinces me that turnout goes up or that we will see more civil races or that cost savings will result (and I'd question whether cost savings should be a factor of much magnitude when discussing voting rights, let alone a crucial factor). But a lack of evidence for something that is largely untested in the U.S. seems to me to be unproblematic unless there are compelling reasons to support the notion that democracy or our right to vote is curtailed in a meaningful way. And MVA's claims about IRV's defects don't convince me of that, either. Which is why the incubator approach should be appropriate here. It allows us to see if any of these claims being made by either side are of sufficient strength to result in wider change (or foreclosure of further change) to the system.

Do I dare make a final suggestion that the reason why MVA supports requiring an ID is due to a concern about the dilution of an eligible vote with an ineligible vote, and not an effort to disenfranchise certain elements of society? Again, I come down opposite MVA here and in favor of not disenfranchising an eligible vote even if it means some ineligible votes end up in the final vote totals. I support both goals (all eligible voters are able to vote while no ineligible voters are), but when push comes to shove, I think the worse sin is excluding the legitimate voter. But it is something reasonable to disagree about, outside of any partisan perspective. And it is a good debate to have, since it has to do with the very essence of what the American experiment is all about. Sorry for the long post, but talking democracy is not a simple thing that is easily distilled.

Jeff Maas makes some valid points regarding the goals of MVA. I disagree that we need to use local government as an "incubator" for certain changes, considering that local government has the largest amount of control over the lives of it's constituents. By that, I mean the policies of local government reach further into the lives of local voters than State and Federal policies do. This includes higher levels of taxation, license fees and certain prohibitions. If IRV is going to be incubated anywhere, why does it have to be here? There are plenty of other places to study it's effectiveness - North Carolina, California and other states. Let's continue to properly examine the merits and flaws of IRV before just going with it here.

When Minneapolis voters passed IRV a couple years ago, the vote counting procedures were not on the ballot nor were they properly explained. Minneapolis city officials even admitted this after the election because they hadn't even been formulated yet.

Lastly, Jeff Maas makes a valid point regarding 100% ID checks at the polls. However, I differ with him in support of such a measure because of the ease of obtaining identification. A vast majority of lower income people already have identification. For those that do work, they need proper identification in order to be hired. For those that do not work but receive government assistance need to have identification and proof of residency in order to qualify. That leaves an extremely small minority of people who don't work or receive government assistance who might need a State identification card. Most people who fall into that category have the state ID's already. The ability to obtain an ID card should not be the issue.

The larger issue should be fraudlent votes versus valid votes. There are rules in the election process and, even in the IRV discussion, we have one man one vote, which has been upheld by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. I don't want one person casting five fraudulent votes to my one legitimate vote, nor do I want foreign nationals who happen to live here voting for our leaders if they are not citizens (and therefore ineligible to vote). The fairest way to conduct an election is to make sure that those who are eligible to vote are the only ones who can vote.

For those who read the above paragraph and wish to pick apart the sentence, "I don't want one person casting five fraudulent votes to my one legitimate vote..." I can already here you say prove it. I cannot prove that it does happen any more than you can prove that is doesn't.

Sorry for the long post. Needed to constructively vent my spleen tonight.

This won't get a huge following, I imagine, but a change I would like to see MN make, as a leader in the business of the voting process, is to improve the way voters from abroad can cast their ballots. The last state I lived in was Minnesota, before moving to Europe. This means that to vote in a federal election I must use my last address there to request a mail-in ballot. Mine ballot never arrived - a common problem for US citizens living abroad. Worse, I discovered that my son, 20 and voting for the first time, has no legal right to vote in the US even though he was born and has always remained a US citizen. Only 16 states have passed laws allowing US citizens who have not had a US address, to vote. I understand why people might not want him to vote for the governor of Minnesota, for example, but remember that as US citizens we are taxed, all our lives, no matter where in the world we live. Taxation without representation: does Minnesota really want to say it does this?

Yes, Jeffrey, people ARE challenging your absurd statement "'I don't want one person casting five fraudulent votes to my one legitimate vote...' I can already here you say prove it. I cannot prove that it does happen any more than you can prove that is doesn't."

Under our system, usually, the guy who makes the allegation/charge has some sort of moral/ethical.intellectual obligation to back up--to PROVE--the basis/facts of the statements...In your case, you cannot authenticate ONE precincyt where the number of voters and the number of votes didn't match without explanation....you cannot find ONE example in all the state of Minnesota where two or three or any other number of persons (let alone five) voted in the same precinct....or where one person cast five fraudulent votes anywhere in the state.

That's not to say that there aren't attempts to multi-vote, but they are turned back in virtually every case...Elections are managed in thousands of precincts by people who do it once, maybe twice, a year and they are not professionals. They can and do make mistakes from time to time. But you are UNABLE to find even ONE example of systemic violation of state election laws anywhere in the state of Minnesota, any violation that determined the outcome of an election. Not one.

Imprecations of corruption, collusion to defraud, or incompetence ought to be accompanied by something other than simply unfounded suspicion or mouthing off. To do other cannot be justifed on any moral/ethical/.intellectual grounds that I am aware of. For the Judaeo-Christians among us, to do so is a violation of the Ninth Commandment.