Judge upholds instant runoff voting in Minneapolis

A mock IRV optical scan ballot
An example of what an instant runoff ballot might look like. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of 'first choice' votes, the one receiving the fewest of those votes is eliminated. That candidate's votes are then redistributed to the others according to the voter's preferences.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

The city of Minneapolis has cleared a major hurdle on its way to using instant runoff voting for city elections this fall. A Hennepin County judge has rejected a lawsuit seeking to halt the process.

The ruling comes in the midst of a lengthy recount and court case involving the U.S. Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, who holds a 225-vote lead.

Backers of IRV, which eliminates primary elections and allows voters to rank candidates for office in order of preference, have said the recount may have been avoided under their system of voting.

In 2006, Minneapolis voters approved the use of IRV by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 65 percent to 35 percent. The Minnesota Voter's Alliance sued in an attempt to halt IRV from being used in Minneapolis elections, arguing that it's an impractical system that attracts large fields of candidates, which in turn makes it harder for third party candidates to get recognition.

In his ruling, Hennepin County District Judge McGunnigle wrote, "The City of Minneapolis has an important interest in respecting the democratic process, and the citizens of Minneapolis democratically voted for IRV by referendum."

McGunnigle added that the plaintiffs "have failed to demonstrate that IRV is either unconstitutional or contrary to public policy."

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With IRV, voters rank all choices by preference on a single ballot. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and those voters' second-choice votes are redistributed to the remaining field. The process is repeated until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

FairVote Minnesota, an advocacy group that supports IRV, is working to bring IRV voting to St. Paul and Duluth as well. Jeanne Massey, the group's executive director, says she'd like to see instant runoff voting someday in state elections.

"There is now great awareness about the need for runoff elections in our state contests that are highly competitive, because we have a strong third party presence in the Independence Party, and we no longer have majority winners in our high-stake elections," said Massey.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance said this afternoon will appeal the decision.

Alliance member Andy Cilek says the system which allows voters to rank their choices for elected office violates a one-person, one-vote guarantee. Cilek says the precedent was established by the State Supreme Court in 1915.

"The court also said that the Constitution, by implication, forbids casting more than a single expression of opinion or choice. Not three votes," said Cilek.

Cilek said his organization will seeki an expedited review of the case before the State Supreme Court.