Minneapolis Star Tribune
A sign that Minnesota might be ready at last
for instant runoff voting
October 3, 2002
It's time for Minnesota to revisit how it elects its
Regardless of who wins the governor's race next month,
the strong showing of Jesse Ventura in 1998 was no anomaly. In the
latest Minnesota Poll, 57 percent of respondents said the state is
better off with more than two strong political parties, and only 34
percent said we're better off with the traditional two-party system.
There are pros and cons on both sides of the
multiparty question, but since we know which side most Minnesotans
prefer, why not get rid of some of the negative aspects of a
The biggest negative is that we're electing candidates
without majority support. Jesse Ventura had 37 percent support in
1998, and the governor we elect this year is almost sure to be in
the same boat. It's not impossible to lead or govern from that boat,
but it's hard.
The second negative showed up in the 2000 presidential
election, when supporters of Ralph Nader in Florida threw the
election to George Bush, even though most of them would have
preferred Al Gore over Bush. This is the so-called spoiler problem,
which turns voting into an anguishing strategy game instead of just
a statement of who and what you support. Spoilers can hurt either
Democrats or Republicans, depending on where they're coming from.
There is a fairly simple and very elegant solution to
both these problems. It's been talked about before but hasn't taken
hold. It's called instant runoff voting.
Under an instant-runoff system, if there are four
candidates in a race, you put the number 1 next to your first
choice. You then may choose to put a 2 next to your second choice,
and a 3 next to your third (but you don't have to). The number 1
votes are counted, and if someone has more than 50 percent the
election is decided. If no one does, the candidate with the fewest
votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed based on
the voters' second choice. If that produces a majority for one
candidate, the election is decided. If not, the process is repeated
again, and with only two candidates left, the one with the higher
vote count wins.
In this way, we would know that every candidate
elected would have won if the election had been a head-to-head
contest between the two most popular choices. And the winner will
have some form of majority support (unless a lot of people decline
to mark a 2 on their ballot).
In addition, you could confidently cast your vote for
a third-party candidate who you think has little chance to win,
knowing that when that candidate is eliminated, your second-choice
vote will ensure that you're not throwing the election to someone
you strongly oppose.
Of course, instant runoff voting does make the ballot
a bit more complicated, and it asks voters to make more judgments.
But those are smaller problems than the ones it solves.
Instant runoff voting is a tough sell in the
Legislature, because it increases the viability of third parties and
our Legislature is dominated by the big two. But if the 57 percent
who prefer more than two strong parties push for the change, who
knows? In Minnesota politics, stranger things have happened.
Joel Kramer, a former publisher of the Star
Tribune, is executive director of Growth and Justice, a new
institute "for a prosperous, fair and sustainable Minnesota
economy." This past spring he was the running mate of gubernatorial
candidate Becky Lourey.