A vote for new elections

Minneapolis and St. Paul are leading the way in instant runoff voting.
November 28, 2011

Minnesota is leading the charge against the conventional voting system, instead preferring a method called instant runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting. This system is very new to political elections in the United States. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul use this method, though only a few cities in the U.S. do, including Portland, Maine; San Francisco; and Oakland, California.

Instant runoff voting is still a work in progress. Right now, Minneapolis is attempting to obtain new voting machines for the 2012 election cycle. In the 2009 city elections, it took 18 days following the voting to hand count all the second-place votes, in addition to costing much more money. The new voting system requires software that is not federally or state-approved. Some are advocating for the state to drop the federal certification standard in the state and push for getting the software early. However, like Ramsey County election manager has said, it is important to get federal certification so the state does not incur any penalties for faulty elections.

Despite the extra $345,000 that the 2009 election cost Minneapolis, once the software is approved, that cost will be alleviated — it was mostly paying for extra workers and space for hand counting ballots. Instant runoff voting should continue to spread to other cities, since it is a much more effective voting system and has many benefits over traditional voting.

Perhaps the biggest virtue of instant runoff voting is its ability to limit negative campaigning, especially relating to race. Project Muse’s Journal of Democracy, after observing five real-world cases, determined that using instant runoff voting can “help promote successful conflict management in divided societies,” which decreases the amount of “ethnic campaigning,” or trying to divide an electorate based on a candidate’s ethnicity. Minnesota’s and the United States’ continued use of instant runoff voting could spread the awareness of this issue to areas plagued by racial tensions.

Negative campaigning is another issue that could be limited by switching voting methods. In fact, instant runoff voting could penalize anyone who attempts to benefit from being negative. Under the system, the candidates want, at the very least, second-place votes, which could prove decisive in an election where no one wins a majority of first-place votes. Attacking all the other candidates is not looked upon favorably, and for good reason. Negative campaigning — which replaces actual debates about policy and is generally unproductive — could potentially drop a candidate down to last place on many ballots.

A 2004 San Francisco County Board of Supervisors election garnered attention in 2004 because of the use of instant runoff voting. The election included joint fundraisers with the top-three candidates — voters are allowed to rank their top three choices. Continuing to use ranked-choice voting could lead to more cooperation in politics like this example.

Many supporters of the San Francisco measure, which passed in 2002, say that it was the 2000 election in Florida that finally led to the idea to put the method into practice.

Instant runoff voting first determines if any candidate has won a majority of first-place votes. If they have, they are declared the winner. However, if there is no majority, then the candidate holding the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and the second-place votes on their ballots are counted and added to the remaining candidates’ totals. This is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

A study was done using data from the instant runoff voting records in the U.K. which found that the individual’s vote has more power under the new system. This is because under instant runoff voting, seats that normally wouldn’t be strongly contested face greater competition, creating a higher turnout. This means that more voters would have a greater impact each election cycle.

There is a question whether switching to instant runoff voting destroys an institution prided on the concept of “one person, one vote.” This was addressed in a 1975 circuit court case in Jackson County, Mich. A preferential voting system was employed in a mayoral race and a City Council race. The results of the election eventually went to court, where the judges studied the system to determine if it does, in fact, violate the “one person, one vote” principle. In the end, they found that the system does not. As the final lawsuit reads, “no one person or voter has more than one effective vote for one office … no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter.” The concept is the same as in any runoff election, except the votes are automatically re-allocated rather than holding a second round of voting on a separate day.

Since that San Francisco election in 2004, instant runoff voting has gained steam in United States elections. Already used in many other places in the world, like some elections in Australia and the UK, this voting method should become more popular and widely used.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are two of the only cities in the country to switch over so far, and the results have been favorable. Fixing any kinks in the system, like computer software, will come with time. No democratic system is absolutely perfect, but using a method that creates a more congenial political atmosphere would benefit everyone. After all, that 2004 San Francisco election included candidate meetings every few weeks to discuss real, solvable problems in the district, rather than using that time to engage in smear campaigns.

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