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MN Daily: Instantly Rejoiceful Voters

Its time for people to overcome their skittishness toward IRV and accept its benefits for providing more fair elections.

Thomas Q. Johnson, June 23, 2009

Its time for people to overcome their skittishness toward IRV and accept its benefits for providing more fair elections.

Heres one from Professor Andrew Coleman of the University of Leicester , A diner looks at the menu which he understands he has a choice between salmon and steak. He orders salmon, but then the waiter informs him that the chicken is also available today. In that case, says the diner, Ill take the steak.

Okay, maybe electoral science humor escapes me at first, but change salmon to Dean Barkley, steak to Al Franken and chicken to Norm Coleman and maybe the joke will make more sense. That situation is an example of strategic voting, which many voters are often forced to do in our current one round, winner-take-all system.

Despite being the standard in the U.S., this traditional way of voting is definitely not the best. Admittedly, there is no such thing as a perfect election system in which the results will always truly reflect the sentiments of the population. However, there are very basic guidelines as to what makes a system good.

This fall a new, and I say better, method of voting most commonly known as instant run-off voting or IRV will most likely be adopted by the City of Minneapolis for its city elections. IRV, which was cleared for use by the state Supreme Court just this month, would bring a needed change in the way which votes are fairly counted.

The new system would allow voters to rank their top three candidates by either indicating a one, two, three or leaving the space blank by each name. In IRV, a candidate needs a majority of votes to win. This is a departure from the previous and more commonly used system in which the candidate with a plurality, or just the highest number of votes, wins. In order to ensure that a majority will be reached, the candidate with the lowest quantity of number one rankings will be dropped and the votes are retallied. If at this point one candidate has a majority, the process stops and that candidate is declared a winner. If not, the candidate with the next lowest number one rankings is dropped and the votes are counted again.

Many are critical of this new system, mostly because it will be another complication to the voting process. In our current voting system in which a simple bubble needs to be darkened, we all know how confused some people claim to be.

But IRV does quite the opposite of disenfranchising voters it allows for the ballot to more truly reflect the intentions of the voter, something which is a major tenet of what makes a fair election system. An even fairer form of election similar to IRV would have multiple rounds of voting in which the polls were reopened and a wholly different vote was taken after each candidate was dropped. Though more fair, this system is not efficient, a legitimate concern with voting systems. IRV combines both.

Though IRV will be at play only in the City of Minneapolis this fall, a wider adoption on the state level could be great. The Independent Party might see a boost in support, which could weaken the two-party disgrace in government today. Another advantage of IRV that may be the most appealing to Minnesotans right now is that election margins would generally become much wider, resulting in more clear elections.

Its time for people to overcome their skittishness toward IRV and accept its benefits for providing fairer elections. Im about ready to leave this restaurant, anyway. Its been more than seven months and my waiter hasnt come back with that steak.

Thomas Johnson welcomes comments at tjohnsons@mndaily.com.

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