St. Paul Pioneer Press
runoff voting can give us majority rule in a four-party
By Tony Solgard
September 19, 2002
Democrat, Green, and Independence ó voters are loving the choices
available to them this campaign season. But what about majority
rule? There's an improvement on runoff elections ó instant runoff
voting ó coming on strong around the country that deserves a look in
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 ó 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.
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.
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 óñ a civil affair that has three
candidates running neck and neck and neck, and a fourth candidate
making a strong showing ó 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.
[email protected]) is chairman of FairVote Minnesota, a nonpartisan,
nonprofit organization working for better democracy by educating
Minnesotans about alternative methods of