Tim Penny: Instant-runoff voting fits the times in this state

  • Article by: TIM PENNY
  • Updated: February 12, 2010 - 7:06 PM

There are many examples of officeholders who didn't win a majority, but who could under IRV.

The value of instant-runoff voting (IRV) can be seen in last month's special election to fill a state Senate vacancy in southern Minnesota.

The three-way race among Republican, Democratic and Independence Party candidates resulted in a 43 percent plurality win for the Republican -- well short of a majority. This is similar to the outcome in last year's U.S. Senate race, which ultimately awarded a 42 percent victory to Democrat Al Franken. And it resembles the consecutive victories of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who won election in 2002 and 2006 with pluralities of 44 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

In short, Minnesota is becoming a state where many elected officials have not commanded support from a majority of voters.

Under IRV, candidates must receive a majority of support to win. IRV lets voters select a second-choice candidate in the event that their first choice finishes well behind. Those second-choice ballots are then counted until a candidate exceeds the 50 percent threshold.

Especially given Minnesota's tradition as a state where so-called "third parties" flourish (remember the influence of the Farmer-Labor Party before its merger with the Democratic Party), it makes sense for our state to lead the way with IRV (as the city of Minneapolis has already done).

It is clear that Minnesota's Independence Party is here to stay. For 20 years the IP has been an influential factor in Minnesota politics, garnering no less than 6 percent and frequently registering double-digit support in statewide elections. In fact, it is Democrats who have not won the governorship in 20 years. The IP won in 1998 with Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Some assert that the IP has been a spoiler for the Democrats. However, without IRV, we cannot know for certain who the IP candidates' supporters would have preferred in any recent elections.

IRV, in any case, should not be viewed through the lens of which party might benefit most. It should be implemented for the other virtuous outcomes it would bring to our political system.

First, a successful democracy is built upon majority rule. Giving too much power to a minority of voters -- through plurality elections -- distorts the will of the electorate. Further, nomination for office in the two major parties is typically dominated by special-interest activists. As a result, plurality victories often mean empowering only a small slice of the electorate on the more liberal or conservative extremes.

Second, ours is not a two-party system -- and was never intended to be. True, two political parties have been dominant for most of our nation's history. But third (or fourth or fifth) parties have often competed for support and raised issues ignored by the Democrats and Republicans. Most other democracies around the globe have multiple parties that often win elections and become part of governing coalitions. That is due to the presence of proportional voting systems and IRV processes in these countries. Adopting IRV could guarantee a more meaningful role for third parties in America.

Third, no vote should ever be wasted or withheld. Too many citizens believe that the two major parties are failing to address important issues while waging partisan warfare that does not advance the common good. These citizens either do not vote at all or cast protest votes for third-party candidates who stand little chance of winning. Having other choices on the ballot will invite more of these voters back into the system -- perhaps making their third-party candidate more competitive. But even if their candidate loses, they will know that they have not wasted their vote, because the winning candidates will owe their victories to voters who first supported a different candidate.

Instant-runoff voting may not fix all that ails our political system today. But it is a start.

Tim Penny is a former Democratic U.S. representative and a former Independence Party candidate for governor.

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