Senate race shows need for runoff system

By Nick Hannula
Published November 12th 2008 in Duluth News Tribune
As I write this, the 2008 election for U.S. Senate in Minnesota is, as of yet, undecided. Incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken each won about 42 percent of the vote. Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley scored 15 percent. Coleman and Franken are separated by hundreds of votes, with Coleman holding a slim advantage. Per Minnesota law, ballots are being recounted to decide the race’s winner.

Whichever candidate prevails will have barely won a narrow victory to the dissatisfaction of the majority of Minnesota voters; 58 percent will have not voted for the winner.

This race and other recent elections underscore a need in Minnesota to reform election law.

Coleman also failed to meet the 50 percent threshold in his 2002 election. The last three gubernatorial elections — in 1998, 2002 and 2006 — were won with 37 percent, 44 percent and 46 percent of the vote, respectively. And this year, two Minnesota congressional seats were won without a majority of the vote.

The fact that most voters did not choose former Gov. Jesse Ventura, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Coleman, Rep.-elect Erik Paulsen and Rep. Michele Bachmann in their respective races is problematic. Voters’ choices are not accurately being portrayed through the election results.

Third-party candidates have skewed results from whichever candidate is actually preferred by the voters.

The Independence Party and other third parties hold a strong place in Minnesota, and, as such, should not be disenfranchised in our system. Rather, they should exist within a system that allows a candidate, no matter the party, to win with a majority of the vote.

To solve the problem of the non-majority electoral victory, Minnesota should adopt either a two-round runoff system or an instant runoff system.

A two-round runoff system would mean that, if no candidate attains an absolute majority on Election Day, the top two candidates would proceed to a second round soon afterward. The winner at the second round wins the office. Similar systems are in place in states and localities nationwide, including Louisiana and Georgia.

The other choice is instant runoff voting, or IRV. In IRV, voters mark their choices for any given office in order of preference. If their first choice is not among the top two vote-getters, their vote is redistributed to their second choice. For example, in this year’s Senate race, a voter could have marked Barkley as their first choice and Franken as their second choice. As Barkley ended up in third place, his votes would have moved to Franken and Coleman, depending on how individual voters marked their ballots. The end result would have been a majority victory for either Franken or Coleman. This would result in a faster victory for one candidate or the other, but tends to be more confusing than the two-round system.

Whichever choice is made, electoral reform is needed in Minnesota. We cannot have our elected officials take office without the election results being anything but the best representation of the voters’ choice.

Nick Hannula grew up in Duluth, graduating from Denfeld High School in 2006. He’s a senior at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., double-majoring in political science and economics. He interned this summer in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and worked this fall as campus organizer at Concordia for the Barack Obama campaign.