Downtown Letters: Building A Better Ballot for Minneapolis

By David Brauer
Published February 27th 2006 in Downtown Journal Online

Sometime soon, an earnest-looking person carrying a clipboard and pen may approach you. Please don’t recoil in horror. He or she is circulating a petition to change Minneapolis city elections for the better — and make your vote more powerful.

The effort — known as the Better Ballot Campaign — eliminates the low-turnout September primary AND the so-called “wasted vote” problem, wherein voting for your first choice can inadvertently help your worst choice. The petition drive would give voters a chance to approve a new “instant runoff voting” system this fall.

Here’s how the Better Ballot would work: you vote once, in November. On that ballot, you rank candidates by how you prefer them — it’s as simple as 1-2-3.

A candidate for mayor or City Council who gets a majority of first-choice votes wins (just as in the current November election). However, if nobody tops 50 percent, an “instant runoff” occurs, using the same ballot. The candidate with the fewest first choices is dropped, and those ballot’s second-choices are counted. The process continues until there’s a consensus winner.

The Better Ballot ensures that if your first choice doesn’t win, your vote always goes to your preferred remaining candidate.

The current way we winnow local candidates — in primaries — isn’t as fair. For one thing, primary voters are few — just 15 percent of registered voters last year. Despite the noble civic commitment, these voters are far fewer than those who participate in the November general election. A small voter pool shouldn’t weed out candidates who could win in the higher-turnout election.

A single ballot allows the most voters to choose among the most candidates. That’s more representative, especially since backers of losing primary candidates won’t be tempted to stay home. Minneapolis needs to do something — our turnout has dropped for four city elections in a row!

Candidates tell us that in a Better Ballot scenario, they’d need to raise less money since they’d only have to fundraise for one election instead of two. That means less chance for special-interest influence.

Campaigns get cleaner in other ways. The system encourages more positive, issue-focused campaigns because candidates are always working for your vote, even if they’re not your first choice. Candidates must still show they’re the best — but risk falling behind rivals if they are recklessly negative.

This system is not unproven. It’s used in San Francisco, where voter turnout has risen. Hopkins may also institute an instant-runoff system by ordinance this year.

Minneapolis also has a chance to set an example for the state and nation. In presidential and gubernatorial races, we’ve had a run of sub-50-percent winners who often win only because two candidates split the majority voting bloc. That would never happen in a Better Ballot system, wherein your vote always goes to your second choice if your first doesn’t have a majority. In other words, you’ll never have Nader versus Gore or Bush versus Perot again.

In short, this is good government, which is one reason the Better Ballot campaign is endorsed not only by the Green and Independence Parties, but by DFL elected officials such as Councilmembers Robert Lilligren, Elizabeth Glidden, Ralph Remington, Scott Benson and Betsy Hodges, County Commissioners Gail Dorfman and Peter McLaughlin and State Legislators Frank Hornstein, Scott Dibble, Karen Clark, Neva Walker, Jane Ranum and Paul Thissen. They encourage Minneapolis voters of all parties to support Better Ballot resolutions at the March 7 caucuses.

So please, sign the petition — or better yet, get your own clipboard and pen, and circulate one for yourself. You can find petitions and more on the Better Ballot Campaign at

David Brauer is a former Journal editor who lives in Kingfield.