AN ARGUMENT IN FAVOR: Instant runoff voting would make every vote count

David Durenberger and David Schultz // Published April 5, 2009 in Duluth News Tribune

Former U.S. Senator David Durenberger and Hamline Professor David Schultz believe instant runoff voting is a worthy reform to consider in the wake of the recent Minnesota Senate election.

Eventually, Minnesota’s U.S. Senate election contest will end. There will be a variety of reform proposals to improve the state’s election process. One option is instant runoff voting, or ranked choice voting. Unlike other reforms, instant runoff voting would be the one that would make every vote count and guarantee candidates win with a majority of the vote.

The principles of instant runoff voting are simple. It’s like going out to dinner and being offered various entrees. If you order beef as your first choice and the restaurant is out of beef then you ask for your second choice. You have ranked your dinner choices but you only eat one dinner.

Instant runoff voting operates in a similar way. Voters go to the polls and rank candidates according to preferences. The candidate they most want elected is ranked first, their second choice, second, etc. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote then the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped and the votes for that candidate are shifted to those voters’ second choice. This is repeated until a candidate emerges with a majority vote.

Under instant runoff voting no one gets to vote twice. Voters rank their choices, but for each voter only one vote is counted.

In addition to ensuring winners have the support of a majority of voters, instant runoff voting has two important virtues: First, it addresses the wasted vote syndrome. In races with three or more candidates, some voters are afraid to vote for the candidate out of fear that a vote for that person leads to the election of the person they least like. Instant runoff voting addresses that problem with the ranking of candidates and the ability to have your vote transferred during the “instant” runoff to your second choice if your first choice does not win as one of the top two candidates. And second, instant runoff voting encourages the viability of all candidates, giving voters more choices on Election Day.

Instant runoff voting has the potential for broadening the appeal of major-party candidates and encouraging viable third-party candidates.

Many Minnesotans of all political parties support instant runoff voting. The Minnesota Republican Party does not. In a March 22 commentary in the News Tribune (“Ranked-choice’ voting saves time, money”), Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said instant runoff voting violates the principle of “one man, one vote.” Opponents of instant runoff voting usually point to a 1915 Duluth case as precedent that instant runoff voting is unconstitutional. That case was not about instant runoff voting but about a law that effectively gave Duluth citizens two votes in some situations, a clear violation of the Minnesota and United States constitutions and what the courts now call the “one-person, one-vote” principle.

Instant runoff voting gives you the right to two or more preferences for each office, but only one of your votes will be counted in each round of counting and in the final determination of the winning candidate. The 1915 Duluth decision does not apply to instant runoff voting because instant runoff voting does not violate the one-person, one-vote standard. Moreover, in a recent Hennepin County Court decision ruling on the constitutionality of instant runoff voting, the judge found no violation of the one-person, one-vote principle. That case has been appealed to and accepted by the Minnesota Supreme Court for review, and it is our opinion the top court will reach a similar conclusion.

Instant runoff voting is constitutional and represents an important reform that opens up more choices for voters.

David Durenberger served as senior United States Senator for Minnesota from 1978 to 1995. He is currently Senior Health Policy Fellow at the University of St. Thomas. David Schultz is a Hamline University professor who teaches classes in election law and government ethics.