The 2008 Minnesota US Senate race may finally be at its end, and its results, with the associated long running recount and legal battles, has shown the need for reform in Minnesota electoral law.
Incumbent Senator Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken each won about 42 percent of the vote, with Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley scoring 15 percent. Franken appears to have prevailed in the long-running recount, and could be seated in the Senate soon. However, Minnesota has already been one Senator short for several weeks, and depending on how long the legal battles drag on, we could be underrepresented in the Senate for months to come.
The length of the recount is not the only electoral problem that requires reform: neither Franken nor Coleman came anywhere near winning a majority of the vote. If Franken does indeed prevail in the recount and obligatory court battles, he will have barely won a narrow victory to the dissatisfaction of the majority of Minnesota voters; 58 perecnt will have not voted for the winner.
Franken’s Senate race is not an outlier in Minnesota’s recent electoral history. Coleman won his seat with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2002. Minnesota’s gubernatorial election has not been won by a majority of the vote since 1994, having been won with 37 percent, 44 percent, and 46 percent of the vote in 1998, 2002, and 2006, respectively. In the 2008 elections, two Minnesota congressional seats, the third and sixth districts, were won without a majority of the vote.
The fact that most voters did not choose former Governor Jesse Ventura, Governor Tim Pawlenty, Senator Norm Coleman, Senator-to-be Al Franken, Representative Erik Paulsen, and Representative Michele Bachmann in their respective races is problematic in that the voter’s choices are not accurately portrayed through the election results. Third-party candidates have skewed results away from whichever candidate is actually preferred by the voters. The Independence Party and other third parties hold a strong place in Minnesota, and, as such, they should not be disenfranchised in our system. Rather, they should exist within a system that allows a candidate, no matter the party, to win with a majority of the vote.
There is an electoral system that can resolve both the issues surrounding the recount and the problem of non-majority election wins. It is known as a runoff system. There are two major runoff systems that Minnesota should consider. The first is a two-round runoff. A two-round runoff system would mean that, if no candidate attains an absolute majority on Election Day, the top two candidates proceed to a second round soon afterwards. The winner at the second round wins the office. Similar systems are already in place in states and localities nationwide, including Louisiana and Georgia.
The other choice is instant runoff voting, or IRV. In IRV, voters mark their choices for any given office in order of preference. If their first choice is not among the top two vote-getters, their vote is redistributed to their second choice. For example, in last year’s Senate race, a voter could have marked Barkley as their first choice and either Coleman or Franken as their second choice. As Barkley ended up in third place, his votes would have moved to Franken and Coleman, depending on how individual voters marked their ballots. The end result would have been a clear majority victory for either Franken or Coleman, thus negating any need for any prolonged recount.
Regardless of the choice that is ultimately made, electoral reform is needed in Minnesota. We cannot have our elected officials tied up in legal battles when they should be representing us, nor can we have them take office without the election results being anything else besides the best representation of the voters’ choice.