Ranked-choice voting a better fit for today's elections

By Jeanne Massey
Published July 24th 2009 in MPR News

Could it happen again? Could our state find itself embroiled in another protracted recount as early as 2010?


Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to not seek a third term has set off a frenzy of declarations and signals of interest across the political spectrum. Republicans, Democrats and independents are all testing the waters. After nail-biters in 2006 and 2008, the prospects for another close election are very real.

Our elections officials are smart to prepare for a recount rematch. They also are smart to be working to fix some flaws in our system -- especially the absentee voting system that created the large pile of disputed and uncounted ballots during the recount -- to ensure every vote is properly counted.

But let's not stop there.

As 2008 demonstrated -- again -- our "plurality-takes-all" voting system is no longer reliably producing majority winners in many elections. The current system, designed for an era in which there were almost always only two parties on the ballot, does not reflect the current realities of Minnesota politics.

Minnesota's elections have become more competitive; Democrats and Republicans continue to win the majority of offices, but neither party can claim a lock on voters' loyalties.

More than 70 percent of likely voters in a statewide survey by MPR and the Humphrey Institute last year said they would consider voting for an independent or a third-party candidate.

Minnesota voters do not reliably vote party line, and this growing independence has fueled an increasing number of winners who gather less than a majority of the votes. In other words, in recent elections, more voters have voted against our winners than for them.

Non-majority-winner elections are becoming our norm. Both Al Franken and Norm Coleman received just 42 percent of the vote in the 2008 U.S. Senate election. Races in the 3rd and 6th Congressional Districts, in House Districts 41A and 51A, and in Senate District 16 were all won by a plurality of the vote.

Since 2002, no fewer than 17 state legislative races have been decided by less than a majority of voters. Gov. Pawlenty was elected -- and re-elected -- with pluralities (44 and 46 percent respectively) as was Gov. Jesse Ventura before him (37 percent).

Minority winners are not the only problem with our elections. When voters go to the polls, many cast "what-if" ballots -- as in, "What if my vote is wasted because the candidate I really want probably can't win? Or, worse still, what if my vote helps elect the candidate I don't want to win?"

Voters are right to wonder if there isn't a better way to express their preferences and make their vote count. Ranked-choice voting is that better way.

With ranked-choice voting(also called instant runoff voting), a voter ranks his or her candidate preferences: 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, etc. If a candidate receives a majority of votes in Round One, that candidate wins.

If not, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and that candidate's votes are redistributed to remaining candidates based on the second choices on those voters' ballots. If there's still no majority winner, the process is repeated until one candidate reaches a majority.

Ranked-choice voting works just like a traditional runoff, but is done in a single election.

Ranked-choice voting ensures that a voter's ballot continues to count until one candidate wins a majority of votes. It works for voters' preferences, not against them.

Under this system, all candidates have a real opportunity to shape the terms of the debate and to win votes. Ranked-choice voting also motivates candidates to keep their campaigns on a higher road in terms of tone and substance, in order to appeal to voters as a second choice. Negative campaigning -- a real distraction in the Coleman-Franken race -- doesn't produce the same rewards as it does under traditional elections.

While new in Minnesota, ranked-choice voting is a tested and successful system used in eight cities across America and in democracies around the world, including Ireland, Northern Ireland and Australia.

Minneapolis will begin using ranked-choice voting this year, and it is unlikely to be the last city to do so. St. Paul voters will have the opportunitythis fall to adopt such a system for city elections, and Duluth may soon follow. Interest is percolating in other cities across the state as well.

Successful demonstrations in these cities may pave the way for ranked-choice voting in our state's high-stakes state and federal elections, and will provide deeper reform to our electoral problems.

This system can reverse the trend in plurality winners, preserving the democratic principle of majority rule and making elections more competitive, meaningful, participatory and representative.