By Steve Kelley
Published November 7th 2008 in Saint Paul Legal Ledger
Americans should take time to savor the afterglow of the 2008 elections. In his concession speech John McCain was principled and gracious. President-elect Barack Obama was pitch-perfect in acknowledging Sen. McCain’s service and calling Americans to come together to solve the challenges facing us. Most importantly, he asked all of us to work with him to achieve our shared goals.
After Minnesotans are finished with our celebration, we have some tough decisions to make. The election results in several races require the Independence Party to think hard about its future and purpose. Minnesotans will have to look at those races and decide whether our experience with third-party candidacies now requires changes to our election system.
The candidates from the Independence and other parties should not be characterized as “spoilers.” It is a good thing in a democracy to have more options rather than fewer. And there is no principle of voting that bars individual voters from casting their votes as they please, regardless of a candidate’s likelihood of success. Minnesota’s openness to diverse political voices is one of our strengths, not a weakness.
Nonetheless, it is time for the Independence Party to decide what it is about. It is unsatisfying for members of that party, as well as for the rest of us, to see their repeated electoral failures and suspect that the third candidate’s presence in the race tilted the outcome to one party or another. They have had 12 years to become something more than a repository for candidates dissatisfied with DFL and Republican candidates in particular high profile races. Their one electoral victory, the election of Jesse Ventura, is 10 years in the past.
The Independence Party has failed to field successful legislative candidates, except for the occasional legislator who was in transition from one party to another, like former Sen. Sheila Kiscaden. Unlike most Republican or DFL candidates, many Independence candidates lack any prior public service.
We do not and should not have prior service requirements for members of Congress. But it is not just accidental that Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Michele Bachmann, Jim Ramstad, Erik Paulsen, and Collin Peterson served in the Minnesota Legislature before their elections to Congress. The lessons they learned in state service were seen as helpful when voters evaluated them for federal service. Jim Oberstar worked for the Congress; Tim Walz and John Kline spent years honing skills in the military. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar served in local government before their federal campaigns. One conclusion from this role call is that the Independence Party can’t expect to elect people to Congress or to statewide offices with any consistency without getting serious about building a farm team in the Minnesota Legislature or other high profile, elected public service positions.
While we preserve a role for third parties, Minnesotans have to decide whether we want our officeholders to win the votes of a majority of their constituents. The basic rule of our republic is that the majority rules. It’s impossible in Minnesota’s system to figure out what the majority wanted when third-party candidates are involved. In Minnesota House District 41A, for example, more than 60 percent of the electorate voted against the winner. The minority won. That was true when Jesse Ventura was elected, as well. When it happened in 1998, we might have thought the third-party effect was an aberration. Now we know that the third party has prevented us from having a governor supported by a majority of Minnesotans in the last three elections. In 2008, two members of Congress and one Senator will go to Washington with less than majority support. We should be concerned about this trend, regardless of which party benefits.
We have many potential solutions. I support instant runoff voting, though I believe we should give voters the chance to become familiar with it in local elections before we try to use it statewide. We could also use something like the system Minnesota currently uses for county board elections. In those races, the primary election identifies the two top vote getters; in the general election, the voters choose among those two candidates. It might be hard to modify the procedure to fit the races in which we identify political party affiliation on the ballot. The risk would be that one party, maybe even a major party, might not have a candidate on the general election ballot. Or we could hold a runoff election in December, as Georgia may have to do in its U.S. Senate contest this year.
Adopting a majority-vote requirement would respect the role of third parties and ensure that a majority of the voters actually preferred the person representing them, compared with the one who came in second. The Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty should ignore perceptions of partisan advantage and give us a democratic system of majority vote that works.
Steve Kelley, a former state senator, is the director and senior fellow for the Humphrey Institute of Public Affair’s Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy.