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Minneapolis Star Tribune

A sign that Minnesota might be ready at last for instant runoff voting
By Joel Kramer 
October 3, 2002

It's time for Minnesota to revisit how it elects its leaders.

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 multiparty system?

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.

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