Editorial: Minnesota needs new voting system
Pawlenty should be the last plurality-wins governor.

By Editor
Published November 17th 2006 in Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Tim Pawlenty might not appreciate being likened to Bill Clinton. But the Republican governor has at least this much in common with the former Democratic president: He was just elected for a second time by a plurality, not a majority. In Minnesota in 2002 and 2006, as in the presidential elections in 1992 and 1996, a third-party candidacy kept the winning vote total below 50 percent.

That's not an ideal outcome -- for the winner or the state. Clinton's experience attests to as much. Throughout his presidency, he was denigrated by his partisan opponents as a less-than-legitimate occupant of the White House. Those election results emboldened those who sought to unseat him via impeachment in 1998.

Pawlenty has no reason to fear a DFL response as extreme as that. But the results of last week's election were only minutes old when DFL voices began tagging Pawlenty as the "46.7 percent governor." Any claim to a voter mandate Pawlenty might have made was immediately undercut. Any chance for the 53-plus percent of voters who preferred another candidate to coalesce and redirect state policies was lost too.

But one thing may have been gained: a growing recognition that Minnesota would benefit from a different voting system. Ideally, it would be one that allows as many candidates to run for high office as this state's tradition of easy ballot access permits, but that still gives the winner claim to majority support. The vote-by-number balloting method known as instant runoff voting fits the bill.

Some of the ills big-party loyalists attribute to the rise and persistence of the Independence and Green parties are misplaced. More accurately, they are consequences of multiparty contests being decided by a plurality-take-all voting system.

For example, the Independence Party's attempt to provide a centrist alternative to Republicans and Democrats is faulted for pushing candidates in the bigger parties to their respective extremes. With a third party taking independent votes, DFL and Republican strategists conclude that they must maximize their base vote to win an election. To do so, they stake out positions that impede good governance (witness "no new taxes.")

Instant runoff voting would present those same candidates with an incentive to reach outside their parties' ideological cores. Victory in close multicandidate elections would require a blend of first and second-choice votes. A narrowly partisan campaign would not get the second-choice votes needed for victory.

Successful candidates would have to broaden their appeal. That would have the added benefit of moderating campaign rhetoric. Offending an opponents' supporters would carry a penalty, not a prize.

Last week, Minneapolis voters approved a switch to instant runoff voting for the next city election, in 2009. That exercise should be seen as a pilot project for the whole state.

Between now and then, the Legislature should give instant runoff a thorough hearing, and direct the next secretary of state, Mark Ritchie (an instant runoff voting supporter), to make preliminary plans for a switch. If the system serves Minneapolis well in 2009, it should be ready for the whole state in 2010.