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Jeanne Massey: Ranked choice voting would bring our system into the 21st century

By Jeanne Massey, MinnPost August 21, 2012

Americans are proud – and rightfully so – of our democratic institutions and of choosing our leaders through free and open elections. While far from perfect, our history has led us to extend the vote to include all of our citizens and to promote the act of voting as a vitally important civic responsibility.

What, then, are we to make of the following results from last week’s statewide primary election in Minnesota?

  • In the hotly contested 8th Congressional District, the Republican and Democratic candidates each moved on to the general election with the support of just 5 percent of the eligible voters in the district;
  • In St. Paul’s Senate District 67, the candidates to replace retiring Sen. John Harrington will face off in November after gathering the combined support of just 7 percent of the district’s registered electorate; and
  • In Minneapolis’ House District 59B, the voters’ choices for the fall election were set based on the preferences of 876 DFL voters and 98 Republicans, a mere 4.8 percent of the registered voters in the district.

Plurality winners are now commonplace

Unfortunately, these results are not unusual. Overall statewide voter turnout last week was just 9 percent, narrowly beating 2004’s record-low numbers. In race after race, our November electoral choices were constrained by the preferences of a very small number of voters who, more often than not, were themselves a minority of those casting votes. Plurality winners – those who garner less than 50 percent of the total votes cast – have become commonplace in both Minnesota’s primary and general elections. The last Minnesota governor elected with a majority of support from the citizenry, for example, was Arne Carlson in 1994.

The only way to square the circle of these results with the traditions and aspirations of our democracy is to conclude that our electoral system is broken.

Many of us believe that ranked choice voting – RCV for short – is one fix that is achievable and effective. Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) and by doing so allow for an “instant runoff” process. In a single-seat election, if no candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of first choices, the least popular candidates are eliminated and their ballots get reallocated to remaining candidates based on their voters’ next choices until one candidate earns a majority of support. It can also be used in multi-seat elections to expand representation to even more voters.

Functions like a traditional runoff

RCV functions like a traditional runoff but does its work in a single election. RCV eliminates the need for municipal nonpartisan primaries and rolls the winnowing process of the primary into the higher turnout general election.

In partisan elections at the state level, where primaries are conducted to decide which candidate from each party will advance to the general election, RCV is used in both stages – the primary and again in the November general election – to ensure winning candidates receive at least half the votes, without the expense and effort of a second or “runoff” election. This gives voters more choice in choosing candidates and eliminates the “wasted vote” or “spoiler” worries that stifle viable third-party candidates.

RCV is used in democracies around the world, such as Ireland and Australia, and in many U.S. communities – including Minneapolis and St. Paul – from coast to coast. RCV is popular with voters and has been shown to make elections more inclusive, participatory and representative

Candidates must make broad appeal

RCV also helps mitigate excessive partisanship; to win a single-seat RCV election, a candidate must win a majority – not just most – of the votes. As a result, candidates have to appeal beyond their traditional base to the broadest possible reach of voters. Knowing that the path to electoral success requires this sort of outreach encourages more civility and more focus on common ground, and less of the vitriol that's been so corrosive to our political process these past several years.

RCV can’t be adopted in time for this fall's election, but we can work to hasten the adoption of statewide RCV for future elections and to bring our voting system into the 21st century. The idea has increasing support from the public, from academics and other analysts and – most tellingly – from the candidates and elected officials who are on the front lines of our political debates and who know firsthand what the current broken system is costing us and what we need to do to make it better.

Jeanne Massey is executive director of FairVote Minnesota.