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Durenberger, Bonoff and Horner: It Could Be Ranked Choice Voting to the Rescue

Op-Ed l Star Tribune l July 2, 2012

Pop quiz: What do Minnesotans John Harrington, Kory Kath, Morrie Lanning and Claire Robling have in common?

It's not geography. Lanning hails from Moorhead; Harrington is from St. Paul; Kath lives in Owatonna, and Robling is from Jordan. City, rural, suburb.

With three men and a woman, it's not gender. It's not party -- two Democrats, two Republicans. Nor is it age, race, religion, education, experience or occupation.

Give up? Unless you're part of Minnesota's political cognoscenti, chances are you won't immediately guess that all are members of the Minnesota Legislature who are stepping down this year.

And all of them cited as one of the reasons for their decision the partisan gridlock and vitriol that makes getting things done nearly impossible.

Harrington, Kath, Lanning and Robling are just the tiny tip of a very large iceberg of people abandoning our political process. The reality is seen every day on local and national newscasts: Excessive and intransigent partisanship is driving both ordinary citizens and elected officials out of politics and out of the vital marketplace of public policy.

According to a recent editorial in the Star Tribune, 28 of the 134 members of the state Legislature -- 21 percent -- are not seeking re-election.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the past quarter-century. More than race, religion, income, gender or education level, it's politics that has us bitterly divided.

And the growing partisan extremism is making it harder for those who remain and come into office to govern.

Regardless of party affiliation, regardless of their positions on "big government," "small government" or anything else, we are in an era of governmental gridlock at a time when we have serious problems in our economy, budgets, entitlement programs, environment, foreign policy, educational sector and energy security. When we need maximum effectiveness, we are afflicted with suffocating rigidity and inflexibility.

A big part of the problem is that candidates are now typically elected by a narrow base of voters; they do not need to appeal to a majority (50 percent plus one) to win. The last governor elected by a majority of Minnesota voters was Arne Carlson in 1994. A rapidly growing number of federal and state legislative races are decided by a minority of voters.

The three of us are part of a growing, multipartisan movement of "good government" advocates who believe it's time to change the game. This movement includes citizens from across the political spectrum, united around the common belief that having different perspectives on various issues doesn't have to mean an absence of civility or compromise.

We recently led a panel discussion making the case that a key solution to mending our broken system -- to ending the rancor and polarization that's alienating voters and paralyzing our political process -- is ranked-choice voting (RCV).

We're more convinced than ever that it's time to make RCV a reality for our state elections and at the federal level as well. RCV aligns the candidates' interests in getting elected with the electorate's interest in having a functioning government after inaugural day.

It's the simple idea that voters "rank" their electoral preferences -- first, second, third, etc. -- and that those choices are used to ensure that each election in a single-seat race is won by a candidate with a majority (50 percent plus 1) of the vote. It works just like a runoff but happens in a single election, thus saving money and maximizing voter participation.

RCV will have an immediate and positive effect on both elections and governing. First, and most important, it will change the calculation of how to win an election; instead of simply appealing to "the base," candidates will have a tangible reason -- votes -- to reach out to others in order to get to the 50 percent threshold. Consequently, negative campaigning and single-issue "litmus tests" are far less attractive.

Appealing beyond the base means greater statesmanship, more bipartisanship and less extremism. It encourages more-thoughtful, less-divisive campaigning, and fewer single-issue promises that tie the hands of elected officials. It elects officials who know -- on day one -- that they take office with the support of a majority of voters and that they must govern on behalf of this broad set of stakeholders to sustain their approval.

Moreover, RCV removes the "spoiler" and "wasted vote" dynamics prevalent in our current system, leveling the playing field for independent and other third-party candidates who bring new ideas to the debate and fostering greater political competition and choice for voters.

RCV isn't a particularly difficult change or even all that new. Communities around the country and democracies around the world have been using it for years.

Here in Minnesota, our two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, successfully used RCV in their most recent municipal elections. RCV is a simple change, one that would provide a much-needed counterweight to the forces of extremism that are pulling our electorate apart and making it difficult for our elected officials to govern.

It's targeted; it's even-handed to all political points of view, and it's been proven effective. It's time to make it a reality.


Dave Durenberger is a former Republican U.S. senator; Terri Bonoff is a state senator representing Minnetonka and Plymouth, and Tom Horner is a former Independence Party candidate for governor.