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Duluth News Tribune

Duluth voters might elect next mayor in a new way
By Baird Helgeson
December 17, 2002

INSTANT RUNOFF: Supporters say a change would ensure that candidates with the strongest support advance, but opponents say the current system is fine.

Some Duluth city leaders want to look at changing the way voters will pick the next mayor.

The Duluth City Council on Monday night asked the Charter Commission to look at implementing instant-runoff voting for next year's mayoral primary.

"This is an important election," said Council President Donny Ness, who drafted the resolution. "This is needed so that the top two candidates in the general election have the widest and broadest support."

Under the plan, primary voters would rank candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and those voters' second choices are redistributed to the remaining candidates. That goes on until the top two candidates are selected and advance to the general election, which would use the current voting system.

Supporters say runoff voting ensures the election of the candidate preferred by most voters, eliminates the spoiler candidates from knocking off major candidates and promotes more positive campaigning.

Other states have seen spoiler scenarios that could play out in Duluth, Ness said.

Green Party candidates threw races to Republicans in recent U.S. House of Rep- resentative races in New Mexico, and Libertarians and Alaskan Independent Party candidates knocked off Republicans in legislative races in that state.

Supporters also say that ranking candidates means voters don't see their vote as being for "the lesser of two evils" because their ballot is still counted if their top choice is eliminated.

Instant-runoff voting is needed in Duluth because of the high number of candidates expected to enter the race, Ness said.

Several Duluthians have already said they are running for the city's top elected office, and many expect the next mayoral field to have more than a dozen candidates. Mayor Gary Doty has said he won't seek a fourth term, fueling speculation that the field could be the largest in recent history.

Under the current system, candidates in a wide-open field could advance to the general election with just a small percentage of the vote.

That gives too much power to special interests who could rally just enough votes to get their candidate to the general election, Ness said.

Not everybody favors changing the system.

"The candidate who works the hardest is going to get the most votes," said Charles Bell, a West Duluth businessman who has said he is running for mayor. "The current system works."

Changing the voting system just for the primary, and not subsequent offices or races, could confuse voters, Bell said.

The Charter Commission, the board that oversees the city charter, will review the idea and send a recommendation back to the council and mayor for final approval.

Instant-runoff voting isn't a sure thing in Duluth, even if the Charter Commission recommends amending the city charter. The council must unanimously approve the change, or it could go to a referendum where voters could decide its fate.

Doty is leery of making the change so quickly.

"It's absolutely worth considering," the mayor said Monday. "But I don't know if we want to rush into something like that. Maybe it's something we look at for the future."

About instant-runoff voting

How does it work? Voters rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three and so on. It takes a majority to win. If anyone receives a majority of the first-choice votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the last-place candidate is defeated and all ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the second-choice candidate listed on the ballot. The process of eliminating the last-place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority.

Does instant-runoff voting affect voter turnout? Yes. Turnout generally increases. Instant-runoff voting gives every voter incentive to participate because their vote still counts even if their first-choice candidate is defeated.

Who uses instant-runoff voting? Ireland to elect its president, Australia to elect its House of Representatives and the American Political Science Association to elect its president. Cambridge, Mass., uses a variant of instant-runoff voting to elect its City Council and hundreds of jurisdictions, organizations and corporations use it around the world.
SOURCE: The Center for Voting and Democracy

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