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IRV offers St. Paul a chance to shift power away from special interests

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John Hottinger
John Hottinger is a Minnesota politician and a former member and Majority Leader of the Minnesota Senate.
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Reference Library

By David Durenberger and John Hottinger

Imagine that it is Election Day 2011 in St. Paul. Citizens will get to elect members of the City Council in just one easy trip to the polls. They will be able to list their choices from among all the candidates, and they will know that their vote will continue to count until one candidate wins with a majority of votes. 

That's instant runoff voting. We hope it is coming to St. Paul soon.  It will, if St. Paulites approve Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) on this coming Election Day, Nov. 3. People in Minneapolis have already chosen this tested, proven and increasingly popular method of electing our local leaders.  

Here's how it will work: You will rank the candidate you want to win as your first choice. You may also rank a second and a third choice if you wish, in case your first choice doesn't have enough votes to win. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices, an "instant" runoff is triggered. The less popular candidates are eliminated, round by round, and their ballots are reassigned to more popular candidates -- based on the second choices on those ballots -- until one candidate wins with a majority of votes in the final round.

IRV is the simple idea of consolidating two elections into one and accomplishing a runoff in one easy, cost-efficient, high-turnout election. This change will offer St. Paul voters more choices, result in outcomes that better reflect the will of the voters, lead to reduced election and campaign costs and take away the advantage given to increasingly nasty political campaigns.

Right now, St. Paul runs its city elections the typical way, with primaries in September and general elections in November. Almost no attention is paid to local primary elections -- the media hardly notice them, and candidates don't waste their limited time and resources reaching out to voters who aren't "regular" primary voters. So the vast majority of voters aren't even aware a primary election is underway. These elections are mainly party insider affairs. Voter turnout is negligible -- just 7 percent this fall.  Think of that: 7 percent of us are deciding who will be on the ballot in the November general election.

Dave Durenberger
Former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn.
MPR file photo/Curtis Gilbert

These primary voters are not representative of the community at large, especially communities of color, who are disproportionately underrepresented in primaries. The candidates who lose are usually the ones who didn't have enough money and couldn't mobilize a base during a time when few voters were thinking about elections. 

The goal should be to have the most voters elect the winners. IRV makes sure this happens. 

If it's more democratic and more representative, why is it controversial? Good question. Opponents argue that it is too confusing, especially for the elderly, the poor and immigrants. We don't know why these groups should be singled out.  Plenty of people who fit those descriptions have told us that they like the idea of having choices, that they do take voting very seriously and -- because they've seen what the present system does to disenfranchise people like themselves -- they are eager to see every vote count. For a change. So if you enjoy a system that limits your Election Day choices, stick with it. But this Democrat and this Republican want everyone's votes to count, not just those of the special interests that go to party caucuses and endorsing conventions and primary elections. If you agree and want to select from a wider variety of choices, vote for IRV. Let's make "the most livable city in America" also among the the most democratic.

David Durenberger is a former U.S. senator. John Hottinger is a former Minnesota senator.