Jay Benanav and Jane Prince: Instant-Runoff Voting belongs on the ballot this fall in St. Paul

By Jay Benanav and Jane Prince
Published March 11th 2009 in The Pioneer Press

Last summer, hundreds of volunteers canvassed street corners and knocked on doors asking St. Paul voters to sign a petition to put Instant Run-off Voting, a new method of electing city officials, on the ballot this November. Like us, these volunteers and voters believe that IRV will lead to higher voter turnout and more positive, issue-oriented campaigns, and will ensure that our elected officials are the choice of a majority — and not a plurality — of the voters.

More than 7,000 St. Paulites signed the petition, and under the St. Paul City Charter, a question about IRV should be on the ballot this fall. Last year, the City Council delayed action to place it on the ballot, pending court action. Now, as a result of a recent court decision upholding the constitutionality of IRV, the council is likely to reconsider and implement citizens' wishes.

Recently, a column on these pages by Andy Cilek of the Minnesota Voters Alliance argued that IRV should not move forward despite the court's action. The voters alliance is an organization seeking to stop IRV, to return partisan elections to city ballots and to erect new barriers to voting rights.

The arguments put forth in Cilek's column were a rehash of the alliance's legal claims, which were thoroughly explored and broadly rejected in an almost 30-page decision by District Court Judge George McGunnigle. The court gave ample attention to Cilek's arguments, by extending the hearing on the motion to dismiss the alliance's lawsuit to allow even morediscussion, arguments, legal briefs and expert opinions.

Cilek's arguments weren't persuasive. So the simple question now is whether progress on deciding if IRV should be used in St. Paul can be allowed to come to a halt because an interest group insists on an unlikely and frivolous appeal.

Thousands of citizens have petitioned the St. Paul City Council to put Instant-Runoff Voting on the ballot. Under the St. Paul City Charter, it should be on this fall's ballot.A court has ruled it is constitutional. Clearly it is time to empower the people of St. Paul to choose the process they want for electing their city officials.

The alliance — which brought the lawsuit — now accuses the judge of a ruling based on "factual misconceptions and faulty legal arguments." That's lawyer talk for: The judge didn't agree with us. The alliance further claims the judge "failed to grasp" prior rulings of the Supreme Court — referring to a 1915 decision involving a completely different type of voting procedure!

With regard to the alliance's claim regarding that 1915 decision, McGunnigle found this year that the procedure used back then was not Instant-Runoff Voting. The "Duluth procedure" resulted in more total votes than there were voters, an obvious constitutional defect.

IRV doesn't do that. It allows a voter to rank his or her preferences for each round of a runoff, which is conducted immediately to ensure that a winning candidate has a majority of voter support.

The readers of this newspaper have had significant exposure to the advantages of IRV over the last year. They know that the volunteer-driven effort by the St. Paul Better Ballot campaign has reached out to build public support for a system that will empower voters to choose and rank candidates in a way that reflects their preference, ensuring that the winner has the support of a majority of voters without the cost of a separate runoff election. That public support has been manifested by thousands who signed a petition, which under the charter requires a vote by the public to decide whether to use IRV.

A detailed and thoughtful decision has been rendered in district court, pointing out that IRV meets constitutional standards in Minnesota, just as courts in other states have concluded. That decision directly considered the arguments put forth by Andy Cilek's Minnesota Voters Alliance.

It's time for the St. Paul City Council to place this measure on the fall ballot and not allow further delays to continue to impede the will of the people.

Jay Benanav served as the Ward 4 St. Paul City Council member from 1998-2007; Jane Prince served as his legislative aide. Both attorneys serve as legal advisers to the St. Paul Better Ballot Campaign.