By Bruce Campbell
We profess to love democracy in America but, much like family members avoiding a loved one’s personal issues, we’re a nation in denial about problems with our democratic system. Less than 60% of eligible voters participated in the 2004 presidential election. And that was considered high relative to previous years. (Do the math: the current president received support from less than 30% of the voting age population.) In Minnesota the last two governors took office with less than 50% of the vote (Ventura got 37%, Pawlenty 44%). It’s no wonder that politicians often cater exclusively to their hard-core base of support when they craft legislation or speak publicly. This is a problem for political representation . . in a. representative democracy no less.
The first step, they say, is to admit you’ve got a problem. The good news in this case is that there are a growing number of people talking about a solution, at least here in Minneapolis. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting, and because Minneapolis is a "home rule" city we have the ability to adopt it as an amendment to the city charter. On January 4, the Minneapolis Charter Commission approved the petition drive to put the question on the ballot. Already, IRV has been endorsed by, among others, the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, a couple of neighborhood associations, and seven members of the city council.
The IRV solution has two components: 1) a change in how we vote, and 2) a change in how votes are tallied. Here’s how it works. Instead of casting a ballot with only one preferred candidate selected, voters rank candidates in order of their preference. So, in a contest with candidates A, B, and C, I could choose to mark my ballot "B=1; C=2; A=3," according to my sense of how well each represents my concerns. Then, when votes are counted, the candidate whose number of first choice rankings is lowest is eliminated, and the second preferences of those ballots are transferred to the corresponding candidates. Imagine that B, for example, received the lowest number of first choice votes. My vote would then go to candidate C. If no candidate received an absolute majority of first preference votes, then the second preference votes of the losing candidate would help determine the victor. And there would be no victor without an absolute majority.
No more "spoiler" candidates. No more "wasted" votes. No more holding your nose and voting for the "lesser of two evils." And Instant Runoff Voting strengthens democracy in several other ways too. First, it emphasizes majority rule, a principle essential to democratic politics. Politicians should not be able to simply motivate a hard-core base of support in order to win office. They need to speak to and for as many of their constituents as possible. IRV would encourage this, because the most viable candidates would be those who reach out to their opponents’ supporters also. The current divisiveness in the political process would not play well.
Second, minor party candidates with good ideas would be able to participate in public debates over policy. The current system favors the two major parties to the exclusion of all others. Voters are often discouraged from voting their conscience for fear that an independent or third party candidate will act as a "spoiler," throwing the election to a candidate they don’t want. With IRV, third parties and independent voting blocs would carry more weight in the political process because their supporters’ second preferences will be taken into account.
Third, the ability to vote one’s true preferences will likely result in higher voter turnouts and a broader field of candidates. This means more democracy, more vital and extensive public discussion, more representative outcomes, and politicians with a clearer sense of what their constituents want.
Like I said, the charter amendment would only cover Minneapolis elections. But it would be a start, and a very good one at that. If you want to learn more, you can visit www.fairvotemnn.org, and/or call your neighborhood association to ask for a public presentation to be scheduled. At the very least, when the petition comes your way, you can make an informed decision about whether to support it. Minneapolitans have an important opportunity here to show their love for democracy. Maybe the rest of the state, and the country, will take it to heart.
Submitted for publication in Northeaster and NorthNews Newspapers