Fall signals the coming of two great Minnesota traditions: winter and elections. The latter tends to get MPIRGers more excited. Though 2011 is considered an "off year," there was plenty of excitement last week for St. Paul's first election using ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. MPIRG was instrumental in campaigning for St. Paul's switch to ranked choice voting, and the Hamline MPIRG chapter helped make sure that students knew what to expect when seeing a ranked choice ballot for what was likely their first time.
Ranked choice voting allows voters to express their full array of opinions. Instead of marking just one candidate for an office, the voter gets to rank candidates as 1, 2, 3, and so on. When the ballots are counted, the first choice votes are tallied and if a candidate has more than 50% then he or she is elected. If not, then the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and all of that candidate's first choice ballots are reallocated according to the voter's second choice. This process continues until a candidate has attained a majority of votes.
Minnesota serves as an ideal laboratory for electoral reform because of our streak of elections resulting in winners without a majority. Our last three governors were all elected with less than 50% of the vote. In a state with very diverse and moderate opinions, voters should not have to feel like they are "wasting" their vote by voting for a "spoiler" who cannot win. With ranked choice every voter can express his or her opinion, yet still end up with a winner who has majority support.
Not only is ranked choice voting fair and practical, but also cost-effective. An election conducted with ranked choice voting allows all candidates to run in the general election. This eliminates the need for a primary election. Primaries are often plagued by very low turnout with only the most devoted supporters of a candidate turning out to vote. Public opinion is not at all reflected in the primaries even though the primary can sometimes be just as important as the general election. An extra election costs cities and states time and money to train election workers and set up polling stations. One ranked choice general election allows far more choices and gives all the voters a chance to make their voices heard.
Ranked choice voting is not a new idea. Australia has been using the system for nearly a century for its national elections. Ireland even uses the system to elect its president. Ranked choice voting has proven itself on a large scale and can be introduced to all of Minnesota. If democracy is truly "rule by the many" then why should we allow a candidate to win an election with less than half the vote? Now that the state's two largest cities have successfully implemented ranked choice voting, the stage is set and the time is right for further reform.
Written by Ben Surma