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St. Paul Pioneer Press

Instant runoff voting can give us majority rule in a four-party state
By Tony Solgard
September 19, 2002

Republican, Democrat, Green, and Independence voters are loving the choices available to them this campaign season. But what about majority rule? There's an improvement on runoff elections instant runoff voting coming on strong around the country that deserves a look in Minnesota.

You might recall that Jesse Ventura was elected governor with only 37 percent of the vote. The rest of the statewide constitutional officers were elected in 1998 with less than a majority of the vote as well. This year's elections, most notably the governor's race, look like they will yield similar results.

Then there's the so-called "spoiler" problem when like-minded voters divide themselves between two or more candidates. They say Ross Perot spoiled the election for the elder George Bush in 1992 and that Ralph Nader did the same for Al Gore in 2000. This year in Minnesota, with Tim Penny coming up the middle in the governor's race, it is hard to tell who might spoil whose chances.

Already, there have been voices calling for a second runoff election between the top two vote-getters in the event that no candidate received a majority of the vote in the first election. While assuring that the winner would be chosen by a majority of those who turned out to vote in the second election, a runoff would be a costly and logistically difficult undertaking. Of even greater concern, the results would be less than satisfying.

First, in places that use a second runoff election, turnout falls dramatically in the second election, as voters lose interest in coming back to the polls after their preferred candidates are eliminated. That means the "majority" decision is from a much smaller pool of voters than the number who turned out in the first election. It raises the question of whether majority rule is being accomplished in any meaningful way.

Second, longer campaign seasons mean greater costs for campaigns as well as for the administration of additional elections. Adding a second runoff election would be at cross-purposes with the objective of reining in campaign costs.

Third, when the field is reduced to two candidates, the potential is present for the mud to start flying. Compare this year's governor's race a civil affair that has three candidates running neck and neck and neck, and a fourth candidate making a strong showing with what has shaped up to be a nasty two-way contest in the U.S. Senate election. With more viable choices available for voters to turn to, candidates have an incentive to keep it clean.

Fourth, cutting the field immediately to two candidates in a runoff election may be too abrupt. France's presidential election earlier this year is a case in point. The voters in the center-left of the political spectrum cumulatively had 40 percent of the vote but were divided among several candidates, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. This resulted in an extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant candidate, Jean-Marie le Pen, advancing to the runoff with just 17 percent of the vote. He was defeated in the runoff by the conservative President Jacques Chirac. But voters were denied a choice between Chirac and his true rival, Jospin.

Better results would be gained by having a series of runoff elections, each time eliminating the last place candidate until only two candidates remained. Of course, holding a series of elections would be completely impractical.

The good news is there is a way to get majority rule without the problems associated with runoff elections. In fact, a series of runoffs can be counted, and the wishes of a real majority can be discovered, on just one ballot. It's called "instant runoff voting" and it's gaining support around the country. Here's how it works:

With instant runoff voting, a voter casts a single vote for his or her preferred candidate. On the same ballot, the voter also indicates which of the other candidates would be preferred in the event of a runoff. In other words, the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted and no candidate has received a majority of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Votes cast for that candidate are then given to the next runoff candidate listed on each ballot. The votes are then recounted. The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority of the votes.

Already used for decades in Australia and Ireland, instant runoff voting was chosen by the voters of San Francisco this past March for that city's elections. There's also been strong interest in instant runoff voting in other multi-party states such as Vermont and New Mexico.

Minnesotans have shown that they like meaningful choices. Instant runoff voting can preserve those choices while making sure the majority chooses the winners of our elections. It's time to give instant runoff voting a closer look.

Solgard (e-mail: [email protected]) is chairman of FairVote Minnesota, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working for better democracy by educating Minnesotans about alternative methods of voting.


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