Elections with less acrimony? That's the true beauty of IRV

Nick Coleman // Published November 24, 2008 in Minneapolis Star Tribune
We should have made IRV take care of this mess. He would have cleaned it up weeks ago.

Three weeks into the Election From Hell, and there is no end in sight. Neither Al Franken or Norm Coleman has gone away, the state is counting almost 3 million ballots by hand, the margin between the candidates for U.S. senator has dwindled to one-thirty-sixth of a ballot per precinct, meaning if your Uncle Lou gobbed on his ballot it could decide this thing, and with the lawsuits and endless yammering that looms ahead, we'll be lucky to get a senator out of this by springtime.

It shouldn't have been like this. IRV could have fixed this.

Instant Runoff Voting -- IRV -- is a nonpartisan, fair and sanity-restoring way of avoiding the train wreck we are in now, because it lets voters rank their candidates according to their preference. That means you don't have to hold your nose and try to choose the lesser of two evils: You also can vote for a third-party candidate and not feel you are "wasting" your vote because, with IRV on duty, you can designate your second or third choice. If your first choice doesn't win with an outright majority (which is becoming a rarity in our current system), your second choice gets counted, and so on, until someone gets a majority of votes cast: 50 percent plus 1.

Don't tell me it's too complicated. Rank the colors red, blue and white in terms of your preference: 1, 2 or 3? See, you're IRV-ing! And don't tell me that all the screwy ballots cast in the Senate contest proves that Minnesotans are too stupid for IRV (also known as ranked-choice voting). In the Senate election, the disputed ballots -- the ones that will have to be decided by judges -- amount to only about one in a thousand ballots.

They get along fine with IRV in Ireland and Australia. If they can do it, we can.

And we should. It would save us a lot of headaches. And mean better elections.

Minnesota has elected only one governor with a majority vote in the past five elections (Arne Carlson won a second term with a majority in 1994). Other than that, we've elected them with pluralities, some of them pretty piddling (Jesse Ventura won with 37 percent in 1998 in a three-way race).

The system we have was built for two parties. Today, we have more than that and we will continue to have elections where candidates "win" without a majority of voters expressing a preference for them, setting up problems in governing. If IRV were on the job, the voters' second or third choices could be included in determining a winner. That would assure majority rule and also let minor-party candidates play a role other than spoiler. Voters could cast a ballot for, say, an Independence Party candidate without worrying that they were "throwing away" their vote. If their candidate didn't win and no other candidate achieved a majority, then their subsequent preferences would be counted, too. The result is a winner who voters actually votedfor -- even if only as a second or third choice -- and not someone that many voters voted against.

In the Senate recount we are engaged in, can anyone emerge as a "winner" with broad support? No. The "winner" will be scarred by the acrimonious recount and the fact they "won" with only 42 percent of the vote (Independence candidate Dean Barkley got 15 percent).

Plus, the winner will still have knives in him from one of the nastiest campaigns in years. IRV could stop that, too.

If candidates had to try to appeal to a wider base than their own partisan supporters, hoping to win second preferences, it might tamp down the attack ads and produce more meaningful debates aimed at building consensus, not destroying the other candidates. That's the view of Jeanne Massey, head of FairVote Minnesota, the organization that is working for IRV (seewww.fairvotemn.org).

"No matter who wins the Senate recount, the voters aren't going to be happy," she says. "This was a worst-case election scenario. We know there is a better way to have elections. IRV is not a cure-all, but it goes a long way in fixing our broken election system."

IRV is going to get a chance to work in the 2009 Minneapolis city election, and a measure that would bring IRV to St. Paul elections may appear on the St. Paul ballot next year. Efforts to bring IRV to statewide elections are still a few years off, supporters of Instant Run-off Voting say. But if you want to see why Minnesota needs IRV, just take a look at this nightmare Senate election of ours.

We are smarter than this.