Campaign dirty trick shows fragility of plurality system

In a rematch of what has been one of the most closely contested congressional seats in the country, Republican John Kline will once again face incumbent DFL Representative Bill Luther. This time they are running in the newly drawn Second Congressional District. And they will have some unusual company.

Sam Garst, long-time DFLer who resides in the Third Congressional District, filed for the Second District seat under the made-up name of "No New Taxes Party." The move is a blatant attempt to make trouble for Kline, the Republican, by siphoning votes away from him to the benefit of Luther. Luther's campaign is reported to have encouraged the maneuver after being approached by Garst.

The last time Kline and Luther met in an election contest was just two years ago. Luther won with 49.56 percent of the vote. The conservative Constitution Party candidate received 2.41 percent, more than the margin between Luther and Kline, who was the choice of just over 48 percent of the voters.

This time, the tables were set to be turned on Luther with the presence of a Green Party candidate, who presumably would compete with Luther for many of the same votes. Garst admitted to wanting to improve the odds for Luther.

Garst's move either elevates manipulation of plurality elections to a high art or reduces it to a cage match

Depending on your perspective, Garst's move either elevates manipulation of plurality elections to a high art or reduces it to a cage match. Both are apt descriptions. The point that should not be lost is that Garst is playing within the rules of plurality elections, that plurality elections are vulnerable to this sort of thing.

Such a tack would be futile with a different set of rules, the kind that Instant Runoff Voting would provide. With IRV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, with the vote going to each voter's first-choice candidate. If no candidate receives a majority (over 50 percent) of the vote, the trailing candidate (presumably Garst in the Second District race) is eliminated and those votes will be transferred to the next choice on the ballot. Anyone who voted for Garst, thinking he or she was voting for a sincere fiscal conservative, would still have that vote count in the final tally, presumably for Kline, the Republican. In fact, the Garst ploy could even backfire under IRV rules if more voters turned out due to the appeal of a "No New Taxes Party" on the ballot.

Clearly, the time has come for an election system that is not vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. That system is Instant Runoff Voting.