Play the what-if game that's the rage among Minnesotans who are sick of plurality-rule elections: What if last week's plebiscite had been conducted under the vote-by-number system called instant-runoff voting?

Here's my opening bid:

The Senate race might still be headed for a recount. But there's a decent chance that it would be with DFLer Al Franken, not Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, in the leader's spot.

An exit poll found that if the Independence Party's Dean Barkley had not been on the ballot, his voters would have chosen Franken over Coleman, 30 percent to 25 percent. That's only a suggestion of a Franken advantage under IRV, however. This poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error; an earlier version, cited by this scribbler on Thursday, found Barkley voters preferring Coleman and Franken in equal numbers.

The poll also found that 45 percent of Barkley's voters couldn't bring themselves to call either Franken or Coleman their default candidate. What would they have done had they been able to put No. 1 by Barkley's name and No. 2 next to one of the big-party guys? By which of those two candidates were they less disgusted?

And how would the Senate race have changed in message, tone and maybe outcome if the voters' second choices had mattered all along? Might the fight have been more about, say, health care, and less about old comedy sketches? (See how delightfully speculative this game can be?)

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann would not be headed back to Congress. The outspoken Republican culture warrior wound up at 46.4 percent on Tuesday. Every other vote cast in the north suburban Sixth District, I'll venture, was an anti-Bachmann vote. My bet is that the second choices of those who voted for Bob Anderson or wrote in Joe the Plumber would have pushed DFLer El Tinklenberg past 50 percent.

Republican Erik Paulsen would still have the U.S. Rep.-elect title in the Third. My thinking: Paulsen is close to the 50 percent mark already, at 48.5 percent. My unscientific, skimpy sample of voters who opted for the IP's David Dillon include a fair share who would have given their No. 2s to Paulsen. It wouldn't have taken many thus inclined to make Paulsen the winner.

State Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina would have been reelected. Instead, he was the second-place loser to Republican Rep.-elect Keith Downey in a city that Barack Obama carried with 55 percent of the vote.

In third place in the District 41A contest, just 134 votes behind Erhardt, was DFLer Kevin Staunton. If Edina voters used IRV, would DFL voters have given their No. 2s to a small-government, socially conservative Republican, or to a maverick former Republican who was a prime mover of the big transportation bill in 2008? If second choices had been registered and counted, this one wouldn't have been close.

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That should be enough to get this game started -- and to start some serious conversation about what it bodes for this state's future if more and more elections are decided by less than a majority of those voting.

Ten years ago, the election of Gov. Jesse Ventura with only 36.7 percent of the vote was seen as a fluky anomaly, unique to that time and Body. But the Minnesota governorship hasn't been won by more than 50 percent of the vote since.

Ventura's Independence Party hasn't thrived. But neither has it gone away. Nor has the Green Party. Three-way races have become the norm at the top of the ballot and are proliferating further down. Last week, the Edina legislative seat was won with 36.7 percent of the vote.

Next year, courts and City Council willing, Minneapolis is poised to give instant-runoff voting its first large-scale test in Minnesota. Voters in 2006 directed the city to use IRV for the 2009 city election if possible.

It won't be easy. City elections director Cynthia Reichert advised recently that voting machine tallies will have to be supplemented by hand sorting of ballots. Despite that difficulty, her office is willing to give it a shot. Every Minnesotan who thinks democracy should mean majority rule will be watching.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at