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Let's take principles of democracy seriously, starting with majority rule

By Tony Solgard

Every two years about this time, I'm fed up with elections and the unblushing reach for power. I, too, succumb to the cynicism that has characterized our political depression since Watergate. But this year is different because we lost someone who inspired us to hope for better. Whether you agreed with him or not, the late Senator Paul Wellstone was widely regarded as one who tried for more than politics as usual. One his most famous quotations goes, "Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people's lives." So, in honor of the memory of the late senator, I'm willing to keep going in pursuit of democratic principles.

For example, the results from November 5 show once again that majority winners are increasingly hard to come by in Minnesota's statewide general elections. It is time for a serious discussion in the coming legislative session on whether or how we will uphold such an essential principle of democracy as majority rule.

In 1996, Bill Clinton and Paul Wellstone just barely reached the 50%+1 vote majority threshold in their respective races. Then came Jesse Ventura's infamous 37 percent victory in 1998, the second lowest winning percentage in history for a Minnesota governor. Obscured by the sensation of the pro-wrestler's coup de theatre was the fact that none of the other four constitutional officers elected that year received a majority of the vote either. Two years later, Mark Dayton and Al Gore's slate of presidential electors were the choice of 48.8 percent and 47.9 percent, respectively.

This year's closely watched election continued the trend: Norm Coleman -- 49.5 percent; Tim Pawlenty -- 44.4 percent; Mary Kiffmeyer -- 47.6 percent; Pat Awada -- 44.7 percent. Attorney General Mike Hatch received 54.7 percent of the votes cast, the only majority decision in a statewide contest in three general elections.

Polls are starting to come out, assessing whether anyone owes their victory to an electorate divided by two or more rival candidates. In some cases, the answer will be "yes," meaning majority will was thwarted. In others, the answer will be "no," meaning that the winner was unfortunately denied the legitimacy and mandate that comes with a majority decision. Either way, democracy was not well-served in 2002.

Besides majority rule, the other casualty was suffered by third parties who could not press their case without being labeled as spoilers. There are indications that significant numbers of voters may have preferred a third party candidate, but abandoned conscience in order to have a say between the top two candidates. Consequently, support for third party candidates was understated, candidates were excluded from debates, and the Green Party lost major party status.

In a remarkable poll earlier this fall, 57 percent of Minnesotans surveyed said the state was better off with more than two viable political parties. That poll combined with the fact that the highest third-party vote-getter this year took just over 16 percent of the vote suggests that Minnesotans see value in a multi-party system, even if they intend to continue voting for one of the two larger parties. Maybe the public thinks the competition will keep the big boys honest -- or at least keep them on their toes. Whatever the reason, the question remains how to get majority rule and preserve competitive choices at the same time.

Not mentioned in the above list of elected offices are the Supreme Court and Appeals Court justices. They are elected by a majority because, as nonpartisan offices, they go through a two-round, primary-general election to narrow the field to two candidates between which the voters choose.

A runoff election could be added for partisan offices in the event that no candidate received a majority of the vote in the general election. Four years ago, this was suggested by departing Governor Arne Carlson and since then by others. A runoff election would allow third parties to compete in the general election without wearing the spoiler tag. It would also assure that the winners received a majority of the votes. It should be discussed in the legislature come January.

There is another option, called "instant runoff voting," which merits consideration as well. As suggested by the name, this voting method works like a runoff election, but accomplishes it on the same ballot as the general election. The voters rank the candidates in order of preference -- their first choices and their runoff choices. The first choices are counted. If a low vote-getting candidate is eliminated, the people who voted for that candidate have their votes count for their second choices instead. The votes are recounted and the process is repeated until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

Instant runoff voting has advantages over two-round runoffs. Two-round runoffs are difficult and expensive to administer. Voter turnout drops significantly in a second runoff election, calling into question whether majority rule has been accomplished in any meaningful way. And when the field is cut to two candidates, the benefits of competition are erased and negative campaigning is more likely. Instant runoff voting spares the expense of another election, maximizes participation in choosing the winner, and preserves alternative choices in the process -- all while assuring that the majority chooses the winners.

Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty said of instant runoff voting during the campaign, "I kind of like it." Legislators should follow up with a serious discussion about the best way to assure that Minnesota's elections are decided by a majority. Why? Because it's about principles.

Tony Solgard is chair of the board ofFairVote Minnesota, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working for better democracy by educating Minnesotans about alternative voting methods.

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