Virgil Swing: Pondering the merits of instant-runoff voting

Virgil Swing // Published January 29, 2009 in Duluth News Tribune
Beware the perils of the early adopter. Other than that, I’m edging closer to endorsing instant-runoff voting. This is the third time I’ve written about this concept, and Duluth readers may wonder why, since it isn’t before them. But it may be here soon in a referendum.

The system is scheduled to be used in Minneapolis municipal elections this year (though opponents say they’ll appeal a recent court ruling allowing it to go ahead), and a petition calling for its use was presented in St. Paul.

Now IRV backers are readying a petition in Duluth. Expect to be approached in months to come to sign a petition urging its adoption here. My advice: sign the petition. If you decide later you don’t like it, vote against it in a referendum. Members of the Duluth League of Women Voters and others are pushing the idea locally.

The early-adopter peril I mentioned above is the trouble that routinely comes with any major change. So Duluthians will be well advised to adopt it here only after it’s tried in the Twin Cities and the inevitable bugs are worked out.

My move from skeptic to kind-of supporter is based mainly on two things: many people I respect have endorsed the idea and, it if turns out to be a mistake, we can always undo the change. Supporters I respect include Arne Carlson, Tim Penny, Don Fraser, George Latimer, Peter Hutchinson and Don Ness.

Basically, IRV has voters express their views on more than one candidate in a race — selecting a second, third, etc. choice as well. If no candidate gets a first-ballot majority, the one with the lowest total is dropped. That candidate’s votes are then apportioned to his/her voters’ various second choices. This goes on until there is a single winner.

Supporters say it will make it easier to vote for third-party candidates, discourage dirty campaigning, avoid the expense of primary elections and ensure the eventual winner has majority support. They say people will readily vote for a third-party candidate since, if their first choice loses, their second-choice vote will be cast for the one they find second best and thus not be wasted. Candidates will tone down negative campaigns, they claim, since they won’t want to alienate voters with second choices.

IRV opponents say it is undemocratic because it counts the second choices of some voters but not others. They also say it will lead to too many general-election candidates, needlessly confuse voters and violate the Minnesota Constitution. They also question why a system that works should be scrapped.

Mostly I don’t find the philosophical arguments against IRV persuasive. But I worry about the mechanics of the change.

Some other thoughts on the issue:

Most Minnesotans wish our latest U.S. Senate race was not still tied up in court. But it’s unclear how IRV would have affected that race. The law should still allow recounts in races where the winning election-day margin is below a certain threshold.

Backers of the reform say it will save money by dropping primaries in non-partisan races. But IRV can’t be done on existing optical-scan voting machines. Machines that can handle IRV are available but costs are uncertain.

The system is in use in San Francisco and a few other cities and counties in America and in some other countries. I haven’t been able to find an objective analysis of how well it has worked in those places.

As of now, no one in Minnesota seems to be pushing IRV for partisan races. It could work in them, but I wonder how well it fits with party primaries.

Besides calling it IRV, some backers prefer the terms ranked-choice voting, preferential voting and single transferable voting. I hope they settle on IRV because it explains the change better than the others.

Some IRV backers note disparagingly that Gov. Jesse Ventura was elected in 1998 with only 37 percent of the vote. I don’t like the idea he could have lost under IRV if backers of DFLer Hubert Humphrey III had cast their second-choice ballots for Republican Norm Coleman and vice versa. That wasn’t likely given the usual partisan rancor, but the uncertainty is troubling.


Virgil Swing has been writing opinion about Duluth for many years. E-mail him at [email protected]