As easy as 1,2,3 (and better than 'one or the other')

  • October 23, 2010 - 4:58 PM

The usual "spoiler" accusations being leveled at gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner and his supporters -- by both Republican and DFL camps -- illustrate why, more than ever, Minnesota needs ranked-choice voting.

Democrats, Republicans and independents alike deserve a political system that brings out the best in this state. But the system we have isn't doing that. Instead, it brought forth yet another new low in Minnesota politics several weeks back, when Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton aimed the word "quislings," sniper-like, at Horner supporters who are longtime public servants of the moderate Republican persuasion.

That word, taken from the name of Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, is used to label someone a traitor.

Horner is not a spoiler but a smart, qualified candidate running a thoughtful, issue-based campaign -- and he is commanding impressive support. The Republican and DFL nominees also deserve respect. But the nomination process in the major parties has become dominated by the parties' ideological bases. Today it tends to produce candidates who represent only a small share of voters.

Most Minnesotans are found around the political center, Horner's territory. Yet too often they are forced into a hard-left or hard-right choice. That is what the "wasted vote" argument is attempting to do once again this year.

Polls show that the majority of Minnesotans are independently minded Democrats or Republicans, or are not consistently affiliated with any particular party. Too often their internal script reads this way: "I may not like my party's candidate very much, but their candidate scares me more. Therefore, I can't afford to back the one candidate who truly represents my views; I have to cast the vote most likely to keep their candidate from winning."

Choosing our public officials shouldn't be an act of cynicism or weary resignation.

Here's what could happen instead this year under ranked-choice voting: Voters who prefer Tom Horner could rank him first, then rank their next-favorite candidate second. Voters preferring Dayton or Emmer could also indicate a second choice. No one would have to worry about unwittingly helping the candidate whose policies they strongly oppose.

Under ranked-choice voting, if no candidate received a majority of first choices, an "instant" runoff would occur. The least popular candidate would be eliminated, and the votes cast for that candidate would be reassigned to the remaining candidates based on those voters' second choices. If, in the second round of counting, someone received a majority of votes, that candidate would win. If not, the process would repeat until someone captured a majority of votes. It's like a runoff, but in a single election; there's no need for a costly, small-turnout second election.

Beyond curing the wasted-vote syndrome, ranked-choice voting (RCV) could help stave off another, perhaps deeper danger -- the decay of our cherished civil political culture. We simply cannot allow ourselves to become so ideologically polarized and so nasty and bitter, that name-calling and character assassination become our norm. This may serve the needs of partisan warriors but not the vast majority of Minnesotans.

Under ranked-choice, the path to victory would require appealing to a majority, not just to a strident base. The need to become the second choice for significant numbers of voters would make shrillness and negativity counterproductive.

The extremism rewarded by our current system doesn't just mar campaigning; it impedes policymaking, too. Officeholders beholden to an activist minority base rather than to a majority of the electorate are less able to seek consensus and compromise (two words that deserve an honorable place in both politics and governance). This results in the gridlock we've seen for years in St. Paul and Washington.

Ranked-choice voting, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, is a "political innovation that takes America's disempowered radical center and enables it to act ... unconstrained by the two parties, interest groups and orthodoxies that have tied our politics in knots."

Whether Tom Horner would be elected under ranked-choice, we don't know. But we do know that we and other supporters would not then be reproached as "spoilers" for backing him. His true level of support would be reflected in the vote tally, and our votes would not be "wasted." The winner, whoever that might be, would have the backing and trust of most Minnesota voters.

Minnesota is no longer a two-party state, and it won't be so long as the DFL and GOP cater to their strident wings. The sooner we embrace our increasing political diversity, move away from divisive "plurality-take-all" elections and adopt a system like ranked-choice voting, the better.

George Pillsbury is a former Republican state senator (1971-82). Nate Garvis is former vice president of government affairs for Target Corp. and is currently president of NakedCivics LLC. Tim Penny is a former Democratic U.S. representative and a former Independence Party candidate for governor.

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