Avoid the agony of recounts, and more, with instant runoff

David Durenberger // Published November 24, 2008 in Star Tribune
We all were hoping that the bruising and expensive race for the U.S. Senate seat would end on Election Day.

Instead, the $40 million-plus campaign continues to permeate our headlines and limit our forward momentum. The Coleman-Franken race is now in a contentious recount and is almost certainly headed to the courts from there. The recount and its aftermath will be a protracted and high-priced affair, and no matter the outcome, most voters will be left wondering if there is not a better way to express our preferences.

Instant-runoff voting (IRV) would have produced an entirely different election.

Under IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference -- 1, 2, 3 -- knowing that if their first choice doesn't place among the top finishers, their vote will continue to count. The votes cast for the least popular candidate are not "wasted" but rather are redistributed to the more popular candidates, based on the voters' second choices, until one candidate emerges with a majority of votes. It's a runoff that happens in a single election, avoiding the need for separate, costly and low-turnout second election.

How would IRV have made a difference?

•It would have most likely produced a decisive winner on Election Day, with the affirmative support of a majority of the voters.

•It would have encouraged candidates to broaden their bases and formulate issue-focused and positive campaigns. In plurality-take-all elections, candidates tend to engage in divisive politics in order to motivate their base. IRV counters that trend by giving candidates a tangible, vote-getting reason to moderate their attacks in order attract "second choice" support.

•It would have leveled the playing field, giving all candidates a meaningful opportunity to influence the tone and substance of the race and capture votes.

•It would have eliminated the "spoiler" and "wasted" vote problems and let people vote their true preferences without worrying about throwing their votes away or helping elect someone they didn't like.

•The increased competitiveness and inclusiveness of IRV would have broadened and enriched the political discourse.

I also speculate that IRV might help to lessen the influence of money in political campaigns, because the major parties would be encouraged to adopt positions closer to where the bulk of the voters are, in spite of the influence of money.

Plurality elections are becoming the norm in Minnesota and elsewhere, a trend that highlights the weakness of our current system. This year alone, five Minnesota races -- in addition to the Senate race -- were decided by a minority of voters: the Third and Sixth Congressional District races; House Districts 41A and 51A, and Senate District 16, where a recount is also underway.

In all, 14 statewide elections have been won with less than majority support since 1998, when Jesse Ventura won the governor's seat with just 37 percent of the vote.

The democratic process is based on the principle of majority rule. In elections where only one candidate can win, IRV ensures that the winner is decided by the majority of voters.

IRV is not new. It is a well-tested and popular system in use or planned for use in nearly two dozen jurisdictions around the United States and internationally in countries such as Ireland and Australia. Minneapolis voters approved its adoption 65-35 in 2006 and will be the first to demonstrate how IRV works in Minnesota in 2009. IRV will appear on the St. Paul ballot once a court challenge is settled, and there are emerging campaigns and interest in other jurisdictions around the state.

Minnesota and its reputation for good government have taken some hits from the Senate brouhaha. It's too late to duck that punch or the ones we can expect in the weeks -- and maybe months -- yet to come. It's not too late, though, to make sure we don't get into this situation again.

It's time for Minnesota to consider adopting IRV and preserve its tradition as a leader in electoral integrity and good governance.

David Durenberger, a Republican, is a former U.S. senator from Minnesota.