Last week's election strengthened the argument for using ranked-choice voting in Minnesota elections -- even as GOP wins in the Legislature weakened the likelihood that Minnesotans will soon be able to vote for state offices by ranking candidates in order of preference.
That's the irony that confronts advocates of a switch to a ballot that allows ranked-choice voting rather than forcing voters to choose only one candidate in a multicandidate field.
For the fourth time in a row, Minnesota has elected a governor who did not win a majority of the votes cast. That will be true regardless of whether DFLer Mark Dayton retains his current unofficial lead of about 8,700 votes or Republican Tom Emmer overtakes him in a recount that now appears unavoidable. The 12 percent share of the vote captured by the Independence Party's Tom Horner assures a less-than-majority outcome for the eventual winner of this close election.
Plurality-takes-all elections leave their losers understandably disgruntled. But winning them has a downside, too. Elections are supposed to do more than fill government chairs. They should give the people in those chairs reliable information about the policy preferences of a majority of citizens. Those policy messages get muddled when an election is won by a mere plurality. The winner's legitimacy as "the people's choice" is undermined, and governing becomes more difficult as a result.
For those nonpartisan reasons, many Minnesotans of good civic motive have become advocates of ranked-choice voting, or RCV. (The practice is also known as instant-runoff voting.) It allows voters to express a first, second and third choice on their ballots. In a three-way race, if no candidate achieves a majority of first-choice votes, a second round of counting occurs, with the second choices counted on ballots whose first-choice candidate finished last in round one. In races with more than three candidates, that method of sorting and recounting continues until one candidate achieves a majority.
Ranked-choice voting does not inherently favor one big party over another. Third parties maintain that it gives them a greater chance to win, but that effect has yet to be demonstrated.
Recent electoral history has left a number of staunch partisans, both DFLers and Republicans, believing that Republicans fare better with the status quo and that a change to ranked voting would help DFLers. Some Republicans have further argued that RCV violates the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote," though a June 2009 unanimous opinion by the Minnesota Supreme Court declared otherwise.
The state Republican Party standing platform specifies: "We oppose the implementation of any voting schemes that violate the principle of one man, one vote including 'Instant Runoff Voting.'" With the GOP in charge at the Legislature in 2011, that plank is a major impediment to the slow, multiyear phase-in of RCV that advocates seek.
In the wake of last week's election, what ought to dawn on Republican partisans is that plurality rule does not always favor their team. With no exit poll results to examine, Minnesotans are left to speculate about which big-party candidate would have been the second choice of Horner voters. But given Horner's long ties with the GOP, it's entirely plausible that, had RCV been in place this year, Emmer, not Dayton, would be in the lead today.
Advocates of RCV weren't planning to ask the 2011 Legislature to impose that voting method for the next election. They're a methodical bunch who respect the desire of lawmakers and election administrators to test this voting method in a number of city elections first. RCV served Minneapolis well in its debut in 2009; St. Paul will switch to the method next year. Residents of Red Wing and Duluth are pushing for RCV adoption by their cities as well.
The modest request RCV backers will bring to the Legislature is for the adoption of statewide standards, so that cities that choose RCV use uniform procedures. Further, they want the state to require that as voting machines are replaced, new machines are capable of tallying RCV ballots. Those are baby steps to keep the RCV option open. After last week's election, that voting option ought to look better than ever.