Instant runoff voting heads to court

Tim Nelson // Published October 8, 2008 in Minnesota Public Radio
A lawsuit in Minneapolis will put a new voting system to the test. Two years ago, Minneapolis residents approved instant runoff voting by a nearly two to one. But backers have to defend the legality of instant runoff voting, also known as "I-R-V", in Hennepin County district court before voters get to try it. A preliminary hearing will be held today.

St. Paul, Minn. — The idea seems simple enough. Instead of making voters pick one candidate, instant runoff voting lets voters rank candidates by preference.

In theory, it would avert controversies such as the 2000 presidential race, when Green Party contender Ralph Nader was called a spoiler. Instant runoff voting would have let his supporters still vote for him - even though his chances of winning were slim - and also choose between the top two contenders. San Franscisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts already use similar systems.

But it's not as simple as it sounds. A plan to change the way Minneapolis votes, and maybe the way the whole state votes, is raising doubts. Opponents have raised legal, political and even mathematical questions about the method. And, they're heading for a constitutional showdown before Hennepin County District

Jeanne Massey is head of FairVote Minnesota, the group that campaigned for the change in Minneapolis. Her group said that although IRV allows voters to mark a ballot for more than one candidate, every one gets the same opportunity. So all are equal in the polling booth, as required by the state and federal constitutions.

In fact, she said, IRV could actually strengthen that principal by eliminating low-turnout primaries.

"The purpose of the primary is simply to winnow down the candidate field," Massey said. "Well, the problem with that is that very few voters turn out for that first step.

"In St. Paul last year, for the municipal election, just five percent of the voters turned out. Just five percent. There were more people that signed the petition to put instant runoff voting on the ballot than there were voters who turned out in the primary."

Massey said having more candidates running in a single election, decided mathematically, would attract more voters and result in more representative government.

But opponents argue that's not what elections are for. Andy Cilek is with the Minnesota Voters Alliance and his group is suing Minneapolis to block IRV. He said ballots are for picking winners and losers and that IRV will interfere with the way that's supposed to happen.

By ranking other candidates, Cilek argues, a voter may wind up hurting the candidate he or she favors most.

On the other hand, a voter simply might not find a second choice acceptable. Cilek said that if one voter doesn't rank the rest of the field, and a neighbor does, the neighbor effectively gets more votes, Cilek says.

The Voters Alliance said that violates the constitutional principal of "one person, one vote." And that's the basis of the legal challenge in Minneapolis.

Cilek, though, argues that IRV has a political downside as well. Under the current primary election system, voters end up with just a handful of candidates to compare in the general election.

In Minneapolis, as many as 22 people have run in recent mayoral primaries, and Cilek says none would get close scrutiny in an IRV election.

"If you get rid of the primary, and that's exactly what IRV does, now we're going to have 22 or 25 candidates on the ballot come election day, in one election," Cilek said. "I can't figure out any way how you could possibly have a good debate with 25 candidates in an election. What this is going to do is create nothing more than a popularity contest, where elections are going to be decided by the people that run the media."

IRV's opponents and backers will make those and other arguments before the judge, probably later this month. But it's unlikely the matter will be resolved in Hennepin County District Court.

Both sides are vowing to appeal if they lose, and the Minnesota Supreme Court may get to weigh in on the matter, much as it did when it struck down ranked voting for judges in Duluth in 1915.

Backers have also submitted a petition to convert future elections in St. Paul to IRV. This summer, the city council put off a referendum on the plan in St. Paul, opting to wait for the results of the IRV lawsuit in Minneapolis.

But, FairVote Minnesota will be in Duluth later today working to bring IRV voting to that city as well. Backers hope the idea will eventually be adopted statewide.

A ruling in Minneapolis on whether IRV is constitutional may come by the end of the year. If it passes legal muster, IRV could be used in Minneapolis in the 2009 election.