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Don Fraser and George Latimer: The case for instant-runoff voting is clear

Don Frasier and George Latimer // Published October 30, 2009 in Star Tribune
What if we held an election and nobody came?

Before you laugh and turn the page, be mindful that we're getting perilously close to that scenario these days; earlier this month, less than 8 percent of New York City's voters turned out for primary elections. And, if you're inclined to brush off that statistic with a "not in Minnesota" sense of superiority, sorry; last month, only 7 percent of voters turned out for St. Paul's primary. Like our endless recount in the Coleman-Franken race, single-digit turnout is an indicator that our voting system needs a tuneup.

Fortunately, St. Paul voters can do just that on Nov. 3 by adopting a proposal for instant-runoff voting -- also called ranked-choice voting -- in mayoral and City Council elections.

Minneapolis voters adopted instant-runoff voting in 2006 by a nearly 2-1 ratio and will use it for the first time Nov. 3. Looking at how the city has prepared for this event, we are confident the rollout in Minnesota's biggest municipality will be smooth and well-received. While new in Minneapolis, IRV has been successfully used in cities across America and in democracies around the world, including Ireland and Australia.

IRV allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. In municipal elections, IRV eliminates the expense of a separate primary election -- and its single-digit turnout -- but works just like a traditional two-step election in that it allows a field of candidates to be narrowed to a majority winner. Studies indicate that IRV leads to significantly higher levels of voter participation and is well-understood and preferred by voters.

IRV also promotes better elections and better governance. All candidates have a real opportunity to shape the debate and to win votes. IRV also motivates candidates to keep their campaigns on a higher road in terms of tone and substance in order to appeal to voters as a second choice. Negative campaigning doesn't produce the same rewards under IRV as it does under traditional elections. Anecdotal evidence on this point is plentiful, including our observation of this year's Minneapolis Park Board and some of the City Council races, contests that have been very contentious in the past.

In state elections, IRV better addresses the realities of Minnesota politics. The current system, designed for an era in which there were almost always only two parties on the ballot, is no longer working as well as it once did. Instead, plurality elections -- including the past decade of gubernatorial elections -- have become the new Minnesota normal.

In other words, in recent elections, more voters have voted against our winners than for them.

And, at the same time, viable third-party candidates are being marginalized. Some voters hold back supporting these candidates because they fear throwing their vote away -- and in doing so helping elect their least favorite candidate. This sort of strategizing means that too many of our citizens are voting for their second choice and that legitimate voices are being shut out of elective office.

Low turnout, negative campaigning, minority winners, defensive voting, premature narrowing of candidate options -- voters are right to wonder if there isn't a better way to express their preferences and make their vote count. IRV is that better way.

As retired politicians, our campaigning days are well behind us. Whether IRV is adopted in St. Paul and elsewhere is not a part of our personal political calculus. It is, however, vitally important to us as citizens and as members of our communities. We look forward to using IRV in our cities and to the day when we will use it in state partisan elections and return to the hallmark of a strong democracy -- majority rule -- without the need for a costly Georgia-style runoff election.

We are proud to stand with hundreds of current and former elected officials, with political parties across the ideological spectrum and with nonpartisan organizations, including the Minnesota League of Woman Voters, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Take Action Minnesota and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, in urging St. Paul voters to approve IRV.