Ballot proposal on tap in '07

[Editor's note: The article references two ranked ballot voting methods, neither of which are the same as Instant Runoff Voting: Borda's method gives more weight, or points, to higher ranked preferences and fewer points lower ranked preferences. The method declared unconstitutional was called Bucklin, which added second choices on all ballots to the first choice totals if no candidate received a majority of first choices. The method used briefly in state elections prior to World War I was Instant Runoff Voting. IRV meets the tests of constitutionality which Bucklin could not.]

Debate over 'instant runoff' will come same year as City Council elections
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL--Tue, Jan. 02, 2007 

St. Paul voters might encounter an unfamiliar voting system at the polls one day — a scheme created by the same guy who helped invent metric measurements.

An effort to institute "instant runoff" voting surfaced last month, launched by a Mounds Park Academy social studies class and Green Party activists, among others.

Minneapolis voters approved the vote-counting system in November for municipal elections. The system could be in polling booths in St. Paul by 2009 if a proposed referendum makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters this year.

It could be only one of several big political changes on the horizon.

The St. Paul City Council election scheduled for this fall may be among the most crucial in decades, given the lopsided and scarcely competitive mayoral election in 2005. The council's existing "progressive majority" had a relatively weak showing in 2003 and might be vulnerable to a conservative challenge.

A second referendum, which would put partisan designations on local ballots, also is gaining ground.

"We may already have enough votes to put it on the ballot," said Matt Marchetti, a state auditor who is working on the partisan election effort.

Ultimately, 2007 may prove to be anything but an "off year" for politics in St. Paul. It could be one of the most momentous election seasons in a generation.

One thing is sure: Instant runoff voting isn't the wave of the future. Its roots date back to the 18th century and even earlier.

A French mathematician, scientist and Revolutionary War naval captain named Jean Charles de Borda is widely credited with pioneering the voting scheme. Borda also was on the Parisian committee that defined the length of a meter, the basic geometric measurement in the metric system.

Like Borda's metric measurements, "preferential voting" has faced some slow going in the United States, despite some success a century ago. It was actually used in statewide elections in Minnesota in the years just prior to World War I.

Supporters, like St. Paul Green Party spokeswoman Rhoda Gilman, say adopting the system again would give better voice to small parties and political movements, like hers.

"It's much better adapted to a diverse society," she said. "And we're a great example of that here in Minnesota. You need to have more parties to represent more people."

But instant runoff voting is complicated, for starters. It would eliminate primaries and disrupt the election calendar. Voters instead would vote in a single election, ranking multiple candidates for each office. Election officials say voting equipment in Minnesota can't scan a ballot "horizontally" and would likely limit voters to listing their top three choices.

If one of those three didn't win an outright majority of first-place votes, the finisher with the fewest top rankings would be eliminated and those votes transferred to the second-choice candidate on those ballots. The results would be compared again, potentially reversing the results of the initial balloting but theoretically eliminating "wasted" votes for also-ran candidates.

The impact in St. Paul is hard to calculate. Votes for Green Party contender Elizabeth Dickinson in 2005 would have captured the most liberal faction of the electorate but not likely changed the November outcome. Five years ago, 16 mayoral candidates were on the primary ballot, and instant runoff couldn't have accommodated most of them anyway.

"It's a dilemma," says Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky. "I'm not sure how it would work in a situation like that, given the limitations of our equipment."

There are legal obstacles as well. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled a version of instant runoff unconstitutional in 1915.

And questions about its effects aren't just historical anecdotes: Opponents feel quite strongly about it today.

"It's nonsense," political activist Andy Cilek said about instant runoff.

Head of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, he contends that parsing out the supporters of losing candidates doesn't guarantee elected officials will have to pay any more attention to them. Cilek also argues that having large fields of candidates debating and campaigning for instant runoff elections would likely mean voters would hear a lot less from the strongest contenders.

Cilek is helping lead an effort to turn St. Paul's elections the other way and return them to a partisan basis by winnowing candidate fields in party primaries, then pitting Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Independents against each other in multicandidate general elections.

Municipal ballots have no partisan designations under current city ordinance, though candidates are free to declare their allegiances.

Critics are suspicious of partisan elections as well. The city's legislative delegation, elected on a partisan basis, has been uniformly Democratic for 20 years, and candidates tend to be picked by a few hundred attendees at a party convention on a spring afternoon, rather than by primary voters.

"But look at the current system," said Marchetti, another supporter of partisan elections. "When we started this in 2003, we needed more than 5,000 signatures to put this on the ballot. Now we're down to about 4,600 because fewer people voted in the last election. Voter participation is already declining."

Tim Nelson can be reached at or 651-292-1159.





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