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Time for better choices: the case for the Instant Runoff

Friday, November 17, 2006   Volume 17, Issue 46

http://www.timberjay.com/current.php?article=2775

By Marshall Helmberger

Why did Peter Hutchinson receive just six percent of the vote for Minnesota governor on Nov. 7? Certainly, it wasn’t for lack of qualifications. As former superintendent of the Minneapolis school district, you could argue he had already taken on the toughest administrative job in the state. He was well-spoken, actually answered questions during debates, and put forward the clearest policy positions of any of the three major party candidates in the race. And most of his ideas were good ones.

Almost everyone I spoke to about the campaign agreed that Hutchinson was the guy they really wanted to vote for. Yet very few of them did, because they feared it would elect the guy they liked least. And that’s what’s wrong with our electoral system.

In so many ways, we live in a society that glorifies the idea of choices. From cereal to soups to automobiles, we expect an almost endless number of options in our lives. If we were forced to choose between corn flakes or raisin bran for breakfast most of us wouldn’t be too happy about it. But when we walk into the voting booth, we hold our noses and vote for one of the two major parties, even when both candidates are less than appealing.

Why do we put up with it? Maybe we just don’t know there are alternatives to our current method of voting. In Minneapolis, residents found out there was another way to vote, and by a two-to-one margin, they opted on Nov. 7 to give it a try in future elections. Known as single transferable voting, it has become popularly-known as the instant runoff. The instant runoff ballot lists the candidates’ names as usual, but rather than just voting for one, it lets you rank your preferences. If your favorite candidate doesn’t get enough support, your vote is automatically transferred to your second choice. If your second choice doesn’t get enough backing, your vote goes to your next choice...and so on.

The advantages are several. For one, it ends the spoiler factor. We’ve all heard the arguments that Ralph Nader handed George W. Bush the election in 2000. Under instant runoff, Al Gore would probably be president today. And last week, the Associated Press examined exit polls in the Minnesota governor’s race and found that Peter Hutchinson did the same for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, since most Hutchinson voters would have settled for Mike Hatch had Hutchinson not been on the ballot.

If Minnesota had the instant runoff, those Hutchinson voters could have listed Hatch as their second choice, and their votes would have transferred to him if Hutchinson came in third in the initial tally. A second tally almost certainly would have given Hatch a majority of the vote, electing him as governor, rather than Pawlenty.

Such a system helps elect the candidate that’s acceptable to the most people— which makes it more democratic. As it is, a majority of Minnesotans expressed unhappiness with Gov. Pawlenty, by voting for somebody else. Yet Pawlenty gets another four years. It’s the third straight gubernatorial election in Minnesota in which the winner failed to obtain a majority of the vote. It really doesn’t make any sense.

But instant runoff could do much more than eliminate spoilers. It has the potential to open up our electoral process like never before. Under instant runoff, Minnesotans could have voted for a Peter Hutchinson or a Ken Pentel, or whoever, in the knowledge that doing so wouldn’t elect that guy they really didn’t want. Suddenly, voters can start to really listen to these other voices in the campaign and cast their votes based on their real preferences rather than their political calculations. You might find some of them getting elected, and you might find the two major parties having to finally begin to address the concerns of average voters.

The good news is that instant runoff may have a future in Minnesota. The overwhelming support of Minneapolis voters shows the idea is a politically popular one. And Mark Ritchie, our next Secretary of State, has indicated he wants to open up the political process, and has noted the instant runoff is one way to do that. State Rep. Tom Rukavina told me this week that he plans to introduce legislation allowing instant runoff in Minnesota. Hopefully, Ritchie, Rukavina, and the new DFL-dominated Legislature will take the Minneapolis results as a mandate for change. The voters are tired of just corn flakes or raisin bran. It’s time for real choices.

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