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Minnesota Sun Newspapers

Fair Vote Minnesota Promotes New Way to Vote
By James Proescholdt 
March 27, 2003

Elections have always left some voters feeling disgruntled. FairVote Minnesota, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, is advocating a new form of tallying votes that would attempt to reduce these problems, making every vote count.

In a presentation on March 19 in Hopkins, Tony Anderson Solgard, chairman of FairVote Minnesota, said several problems arise out of the voting system now in place, what he called the first past the post system.

According to Solgard, in this system, only the largest group wins representation in an election. The candidate that gets past the post first wins the position, no matter if that candidate has the support of a majority of registered voters or not. Everyone else loses, even if everyone else is the majority of the voters, he said. For this reason, the system is sometimes referred to as winner takes all.

Solgard, who was also a past member of the Minnesota DFL Party State Executive Committee, said that too often, seats go to candidates without the majoritys approval. He said that for the top individual positions in the state of Minnesota, 10 of the last 11 election winners won with less than a majority vote. He said the most prominent of these victors was Jesse Ventura, who won with only 35 percent of voters voting for him.

Solgard said that in the first past the post system, candidates often resort to desperate campaign tactics to win. He said that negative campaigns often target swing voters, the voters who are undecided. He said this tactic cheapens discourse. Who are they speaking to? Theyre not speaking to you and me, the people who are engaged, said Solgard.

He said that across a population, the group of voters with the largest number of votes get their officials elected. The remainder of the population does not receive any sort of representation, even though it may make up the majority of voters.

Solgard said that elections that use wards for residents to vote usually succumb to the same pitfall. Though wards promote geographic diversity, they still allow the largest group to win. Trends in the population tend to be distributed throughout the population, he explained. He said that in his hometown of Minneapolis, 60 percent of voters are DFL-affiliated, but all the City Council positions are held by DFL-affiliated candidates.

Two-round elections also have their share of problems, said Solgard. With a primary and a final election, the process is longer and more costly. Also, reducing a large field of candidates to two in one step may be too abrupt. Solgard pointed to the election in France last year where the vote was split among so many factions, that voters were surprised to find a neo-fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, one of the elected candidates.

Solgard also said that two-round elections practically encourage the final candidates to sling mud. He said that the candidates try to make the other guy look muddier. Youve just got mud on your hands. Theyve got mud all over.

Preference voting

The solution to these problems, said Solgard, is preference voting. Under this process, voters select which candidates they would like to win, and in what order. Instead of voting for a single candidate or a group of candidates, each voter forms a list of candidates ranked in the order of preference.

The new process would require candidates to achieve a majority of votes. This factor significantly changes the tallying of votes. Say, for example, that three candidates run for a single seat and none immediately receives the majority of the votes. The candidate who received the lowest number of votes would be removed from the race, and all the votes that person received would instead be added to the respective second choices on the ballots. Solgard said that in many instances, the candidate that at first seemed the victor would come in second place.

The preference voting process would eliminate the wasted vote syndrome, according to Solgard. Even if voters first choices do not win, their votes would go to their second choices.

Hopkins resident Fran Hesch, who organized the event, said that this system would have helped her in the 2000 election. She wanted to vote for third-party candidate Ralph Nader, but wasnt sure if she should have voted for Al Gore instead. In the end she voted her heart and decided on Nader. Some people would say I threw my vote away, but a system like this would allow you to have your cake and eat it too, she said.

Solgard said that the benefits under preference voting would be numerous. He said that it would broaden representation, strengthen accountability, deepen discourse on issues and increase participation. Theres no such thing as a wasted vote here, he said.

Rep. Jim Rhodes, R-44A, attended the meeting and said that politicians need to consider preference voting. This issue needs to be brought to the table, he said. We cant just dismiss it. He suggested testing the system in a small pilot election.

Solgard said that the Minnesota Senate is already debating a bill that would implement preference voting in some instances. The bill, Senate File Number 629, is authored by Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

According to Solgard, the sole disadvantage to preference voting would be the cost. New machines to tabulate the votes might be expensive. However, he said that the state of Minnesota has some funds earmarked to buy new voting equipment in the near future. He hopes to persuade state officials to consider preference voting when purchasing the equipment.

Solgard advocated testing the preference voting system slowly at first. He suggested that small elections begin piloting instant runoff voting, a preference voting process for electing candidates to single-seat positions, like mayors or presidents. He said that after elections have used this procedure, then cities could hold elections for races with multiple positions, like city councils or school boards. Solgard said that implementing preference voting into mainstream elections would take time. Its an incremental change, he said.


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