Don't block vote on IRV in St. Paul

// Published June 29, 2008 in Star Tribune

City councils are not courts. It isn't the role of a council to settle disputes over constitutionality.

It also shouldn't be up to council members to keep charter amendments that originate via petition off the November ballot. That would defeat the purpose of allowing charter changes to spring from the people by petition, as well as from charter commissions and city councils. Designers of the petition option for city-charter changes recognized that sometimes, councils and commissions are hostile to worthy new ideas.

That's why the Better Ballot Campaign, which backs instant-runoff voting, is right to threaten legal action if the St. Paul City Council this week blocks its petition-generated charter amendment from the November ballot. They've got a worthy, albeit disputed, idea, as well as 5,386 verified signatures, nearly 300 more than required to set a charter change in motion. The council shouldn't stop it, even though six of its seven members have indicated their opposition.

The state Supreme Court has long held that only when a proposed amendment is "manifestly unconstitutional" can a city council stand between petitioners and the ballot. That much certainty cannot be claimed about the constitutional impermissibility of IRV.

St. Paul city attorney John Choi has advised the council that he does not believe IRV will win that court test. But the Better Ballot group makes potent arguments to the contrary, with the help of legal talent including former City Council Member Jay Benanav.

A number of municipal governments around the country -- San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., among them -- are using IRV, and have survived court tests. A court challenge is also pending in Minneapolis, where voters embraced IRV in 2006 for future city elections.

That case is likely to wind up at the state Supreme Court, probably next year. That's the rightful venue -- not the City Council -- for determining whether Minnesota cities are free under the state Constitution to adopt a new voting method in municipal elections.

If IRV is ruled unconstitutional by the high court, that won't be the end of the story. The list of IRV fans is growing as its advantages come into focus. IRV promises Minnesotans that they can indulge their third-party impulses without sacrificing majority rule. They can eliminate low-turnout primaries in nonpartisan elections, which would give more opportunity to challengers. (That's why some incumbents resist IRV.) They can look forward to less negative campaigns, as candidates seek to maximize their second-choice votes.

A negative ruling by the high court would only move the IRV fight to the Legislature, where constitutional amendments originate. In that venue, a vote on IRV in St. Paul this fall, no matter its outcome, will carry considerable weight. The City Council should let the vote proceed.