Instant runoff voting and buyer's remorse

Chuck Repke
Chuck Repke, St. Paul, works in neighborhood development and government relations. He is co-chair of the No Bad Ballots Committee, which is organized to oppose IRV.
MPR file photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The advocates of ranked-choice, or instant runoff voting (IRV), make a lot of false or misleading claims. St. Paul voters need to know the truth before Election Day, when they will decide whether to adopt the system.

Under IRV, voters would rank, in order, their preferences for mayor or City Council. If no candidate won a simple majority when the votes were counted, the candidate with the lowest votes would be eliminated and his supporters' second choices distributed to the remaining candidates.

This would continue until one candidate achieved a majority of the votes still being counted, or until only two candidates were left standing.

Advocates claim IRV would save money by eliminating primary elections. This is not true. In St. Paul, the School Board will still hold a costly primary election, though the turnout for that primary will be hurt by the absence of mayoral and council races.

IRV advocates claim the system is "democracy of the future," "as simple as one, two, three." In the last two years, seven cities or counties in the United States have used it, and three of them have either repealed IRV or have IRV up for repeal this year. Cities are suffering buyer's remorse:

Tacoma, Wash. Pierce County spent $1.6 million on a voter education campaign for IRV in 2008, yet 66 percent of 90,000 voters polled said it was confusing, frustrating and a waste of time. It is on the ballot this year for repeal.

Cary, N.C. After the IRV election in 2007, 30 percent of voters polled found it confusing and 22 percent said they "did not understand IRV at all." Cary has stopped using IRV.

Aspen, Colo. The results of an IRV election revealed that one losing candidate for City Council would have won the election if 75 of his supporters had voted for him as their second instead of as their first choice. The complicated IRV counting system cost him the election. The repeal of IRV is on the ballot this year.

Advocates claim that IRV will increase turnout. This is not true. In San Francisco's first mayor's race with IRV, voter turnout was 40 percent less than in its last traditional election.

This year the IRV-format election in Minneapolis may hit record low turnouts. With 11 candidates running, there has been almost no media coverage of the mayor's race, and the incumbent has agreed to debate only one of his opponents.

In St. Paul, meanwhile, Eva Ng came in second in the primary and has moved on to the general election. Her primary showing enhanced her credibility and has given her access to media coverage as the alternative candidate for mayor.

Advocates claim that IRV makes sure that the winner "always has a majority vote." This is not true.

In Burlington, Vt., the mayor was re-elected with only a majority of those ballots still being counted in the final round. Seventeen percent of ballots cast for candidates in the first round were eliminated during the IRV counting.

In San Francisco, in 10 of 11 elections for which IRV has been used, the winner received less than the 50 percent plus one that would constitute a majority.

Advocates claim that IRV increases minority participation and thereby helps minority candidates. This is untrue. Using IRV, Takoma Park, Md., with close to 40 percent minority population, elected an all-white City Council.

There is no evidence that IRV helps minority candidates. In the highest-minority and lowest-income precincts of San Francisco, 20 percent of the voters do not fill in a second choice on their ballot.

Free, fair elections are the hallmark of any democracy, and every voter deserves to be treated equally. Voters need to know that their votes count, and that voting for the candidates they want can only help them, not hurt them. Instant runoff voting is far too likely to confuse, frustrate and inhibit voters.

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Chuck Repke, St. Paul, works in neighborhood development and government relations. He is co-chair of the No Bad Ballots Committee, which is organized to oppose IRV.

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