St. Paul should join IRV bandwagon
New voting method enables rule by majority, not plurality.
Published October 22nd 2009 in Star Tribune
It's risky to recommend any new product, service or method before its first major trial. But the positive potential of ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting, or IRV) is so great that this newspaper is emboldened to take such a risk. We urge a "yes" vote on the Nov. 3 ballot question in St. Paul requiring that future city elections be conducted by the ranked-choice method.

Minneapolis voters said yes to IRV in 2006. As a result, the state's largest city has become Minnesota's ranked-choice proving ground. Governmentally complex Minneapolis will give the new voting method a rigorous test next month.

Ideally, St. Paul voters would have been allowed to evaluate their twin city's experience before deciding whether to adopt IRV for their own municipal elections. But IRV advocates weren't about to wait. They collected the petition signatures required for a charter amendment more than a year ago.

A key reason for their hurry: The more jurisdictions adopt IRV, the sooner vendors will bring to the market the federally certified vote-counting machines needed to quickly sort and tabulate IRV ballots.

Minneapolis has made plans to count its city election ballots by hand this fall because fully certified IRV-capable machines are not available. They may never be, if demand for such machines does not grow.

That would be a shame, because the manual count Minneapolis is preparing deprives IRV of one of its advantages: lower cost. In Minneapolis, primary elections cost about $225,000 to administer. IRV eliminates the primary. But hiring the election judges required for hand-counting will cost nearly the same amount.

Yet even if IRV-ready voting machines remain unavailable for years, other reasons for St. Paul to switch to IRV are compelling:

• Low-turnout primaries won't determine the field. This year, only 5 percent of eligible voters went to the St. Paul polls on Sept. 15. That's too few to support a claim that primary results reflect the views of a majority of St. Paul citizens. IRV keeps every candidate who files for office in the running until the election that counts, in November, when turnout is typically much higher.

• Second choices will matter. Traditional elections allow voters to express only one choice. IRV allows a second and third choice to be registered and, potentially, to help determine the winner.

The consequences are likely to be several: Candidates will covet the second-choice votes of their opponents' supporters, and will conduct their campaigns accordingly. Minor candidates will receive more consideration from voters, who need no longer worry that supporting a likely loser will increase the odds that an undesirable candidate will win.

• IRV's wider use will be encouraged. The best argument for a switch to IRV applies to partisan state elections, not nonpartisan municipal ones, in which the general election functions as a runoff. In partisan elections with more than two candidates seeking a single seat, IRV assures that the winner will arrive in office as either the first, second or third choice of a majority of those voting. A plurality isn't sufficient for victory.

Minnesota elected its last three governors and most recent U.S. senator with less than 50 percent of the vote. It's not clear that IRV would have altered any of those outcomes. But it would have given the winners the legitimacy of majority support, plus provided useful information about the strength of that support within the electorate.

Those outcomes ought to be prized in this democracy-loving state. If St. Paul joins Minneapolis in using IRV, the Twin Cities will show the rest of Minnesota that this state need not continue to settle for plurality rule. IRV makes majority rule possible.