Petition was sound, council's obligation clear: Let the people vote

Jay Benanav // Published June 28, 2008 in Pioneer Press
On June 16, a petition — painstakingly gathered by volunteers and signed by more than 7,000 St. Paul voters — was certified by the Ramsey County Election Manager to allow a Charter Amendment for instant runoff voting (IRV) to appear on the November ballot.

This week, the St. Paul City Council is expected to ignore the will of thousands of voters and pass a resolution denying voters the opportunity to consider a revitalized election process when they go to the polls in November.

As current and former public officials and as people who care deeply about the city's electoral and civic process, we represent a broad coalition of voters and civic groups from across St. Paul's political spectrum including the St. Paul League of Women Voters, Minnesota Council of Non-Profits, Center for Civic Participation, Minnesota and St. Paul DFL, Independence Party, Green Party and many neighborhood councils who believe that it is time for meaningful election reform.

In addition, many current and former public officials are supporters, including Ruby Hunt, former St. Paul City Council member and Ramsey County commissioner; Toni Carter, Ramsey County commissioner; Anne Carroll, St. Paul School Board; state Sens. Sandy Pappas, Ellen Anderson and Mee Moua; state Reps. Erin Murphy, Carlos Mariani, Michael Paymar and Alice Hausman; Matt Entenza, the former state House of Representatives minority leader, and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger.

In the 2007 St.Paul primary, only 5 percent of eligible voters turned out to select the top two City Council candidates in each ward to advance to the general election. So few people determining the outcome of our elections demands our immediate attention.

Several cities and states in the U.S. have opted for IRV as a means of revitalizing the electoral process, increasing voter participation and curtailing negative campaigning. Every legal challenge to IRV in these cities has been defeated.

Through IRV, instead of voting in a primary election to narrow the field of candidates, voters go to the polls only once — in November — for the regular general election. Voters select their first choice and may rank the remaining candidates in the race. When the votes are counted, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the votes received by the candidate with the lowest total are redistributed among the ranked candidates until a winner emerges. IRV ensures that the winning candidate is the choice of a majority and not a plurality of the voters.

Clearly, instituting a new voting process may be threatening to incumbent council members like those who plan to cast their votes Wednesday to keep the petition off the ballot. But under Minnesota law, citizens are given the power of a petition process at times just like this: when their elected officials choose not to act.

Council members who plan to deny ballot access to the petition are resting their opposition on an opinion from the City Attorney released earlier this month. In that opinion, City Attorney John Choi said it was his "best guess" that IRV "more likely than not" may be "manifestly unconstitutional."

But the "manifestly unconstitutional" standard the courts have used is an extremely high one and must be based on more than "best guess" or "more likely than not."

As legal professionals, we believe it is neither the City Attorney's nor the City Council's job to make a constitutional ruling — especially one based on a 93-year-old Minnesota court case about a different voting scheme. Determining a close question of constitutional law is the job of our courts.

Under the City Charter and Minnesota law, the primary job of the City Council and the City Attorney, in this case, is to uphold the rights of the people of St. Paul to petition for access to the ballot.

Rather than an end run by the City Council on Wednesday, the people of St. Paul deserve the right to vote this November on the proposal to permit instant runoff voting.

We urge the City Council to change its course and honor the people's petition at its meeting Wednesday. We ask the City Council to uphold Minnesota law and the City Charter and put the citizens' amendment on the ballot. Voters who support the right of citizens to decide should inform their council members of that before the meeting.

Leadership by the people is the best way to ensure democracy works.

Jay Benanav is a former St. Paul City Council member. This column was also signed by former Mayor George Latimer, former state Senate DFL majority leader John Hottinger and former St. Paul City Council aide Jane Prince.