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Star Tribune editorial advocates for earlier primary and Ranked Choice Voting

Low turnout argues for earlier primary. Add ranked-choice voting to give every winner majority status.

Star Tribune Editorial l August 15, 2012

It's said that the world belongs to those who show up. It follows that Minnesota's 2012 general-election ballot belongs to about 9 percent of this state's adult citizens. That's the meager share of eligible voters who turned out in Tuesday's primary election to settle intraparty contests for positions on the Nov. 6 ballot.

That pathetic showing ranks second-lowest among primary elections since 1950, according to the Office of the Secretary of State. Only in 2004, a year devoid of either statewide races or seriously contested congressional primaries, was turnout lower -- but not much lower -- at 7.7 percent.

No high-profile statewide contests lured voters to the polls this year. But primaries in two of the state's eight congressional districts were hard-fought, and several dozen legislative districts had battles, some intense. Yet even in places with hard-fought races in the district's dominant party, turnout left much to be desired (examples at right.)

Primary turnouts have been trending lower for decades in Minnesota. It's not a welcome trend. Whenever the few decide for the many in a democracy, the legitimacy of the outcome is called into question. Low turnout increases the likelihood that the outcome was skewed by a well-organized minority of the electorate, motivated by a single issue or narrow cause. It's not a coincidence that as primary turnout has dwindled, partisan polarization has widened in Washington and St. Paul.

A low-turnout cloud will linger over Tuesday's winners. Through no fault of their own, it will hang especially low over those who won three-way races by narrow pluralities -- including DFLer Rick Nolan in the Eighth Congressional District, who became his party's challenger to GOP U.S. Rep Chip Cravaack with just 38.3 percent of the vote.

Those results strengthen the case for two election changes this newspaper has long favored:

A June primary. This is Minnesota's second election cycle with an August primary. The old date, the second Tuesday in September, was abandoned in 2010 because it ran afoul of the federal requirement for an adequate interval between the primary and general elections for overseas military absentee voting.

The August date meets the federal standard. But it leaves uncorrected another flaw in the state election calendar: It devotes too much time to intraparty conflict. Candidates spend long months courting their party bases, and comparatively little time wooing general-election voters. The calendar seems designed to generate excessive devotion to party dogma among elected officials.

It also puts the primary squarely in the middle of summer vacation season, which discourages turnout.

State Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Wednesday that he intends to push a bill next session to move the primary to the third Tuesday in June. We'll be rooting for it.

Ranked-choice voting. Every winner deserves to take office with the confidence that he or she was the choice of a majority of voters. Today's plurality-wins system denies that assurance to both candidates and their constituents whenever more than two candidates are in the running.

Combine plurality-wins with low turnout in districts dominated by one party, and the result makes any claim to a mandate laughable. For example, in Minneapolis District 59B's DFL primary, Raymond Dehn was the apparent winner Tuesday with only 876 votes -- just 19 more than his closest rival, Terra Cole.

Ranked-choice voting would give every elected official the assurance of majority support, while allowing voters in multicandidate races to designate a first, second and third choice. That system may or may not have altered any of Tuesday's outcomes. But it would have given all the winners a firmer sendoff into the general election.