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Ranked choice voting offers hope and healing for a divided politics

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Buzz Cummins, Cyndi Lesher
Buzz Cummins, left, and Cyndi Lesher: Once praised as a model of good government, our state is now suffering instability, confusion and stalemate.
Courtesy of Buzz Cummins, Cyndi Lesher

By Buzz Cummins and Cyndi Lesher

Buzz Cummins is CEO of the Workers Compensation Reinsurance Corporation. Cyndi Lesher is retired CEO of Northern States Power, an Xcel Energy Company. They serve on the board of FairVote Minnesota.

The cliche that "politics is a blood sport" has never rung more true. Even in Minnesota, politics has gotten downright uncivil — and citizens are the real victims. 

We've both worked in Minnesota politics, having served under two different Republican governors (Al Quie and Tim Pawlenty). It's been our perception — and we know many people across the political spectrum who share it —  that demagoguery and divisiveness have been escalating for years. That might be good for purveyors of negative political advertising, but it's bad for the rest of the state: not just individual voters, but business and civic institutions as well.

In a thoughtful commentary in the Star Tribune,  "A platform for the partyless," David Banks articulated beautifully the frustration felt by many voters who long for the return of reason to politics, the lost art of "weighing the full range of arguments and evidence, and making a decision." 

We too yearn for public policy debates that aren't either/or propositions, but rather nuanced discussions aimed at finding workable solutions. 

As business executives, we've been trained to observe trend lines in order to understand problems, recommend solutions and initiate action. Examining Minnesota's body politic, we see one alarming trend: a political system impaired by divisiveness and gridlock. Often, as we experienced during last summer's government shutdown, the end result is paralysis.

Once praised as a model of good government, our state is now suffering instability, confusion and stalemate. Our economic and social well-being is at risk. While some simply blame the two major parties for this dysfunction, we would go a step further and ask whether it is our electoral system itself that fosters these negative outcomes. 

Our prescription for curing these electoral ills is the adoption of ranked choice voting (RCV), first at the local level and ultimately at the state and federal levels. 

RCV aligns the candidates' interests in getting elected with the electorate's goal to have a functioning, competent government. Under RCV, voters rank their electoral preferences —  first, second, third, etc. —  and those choices are then used to ensure that each election is won by a candidate with a majority (more than 50 percent) of the vote. In practice, RCV works like a runoff but happens in a single election, thus saving money and maximizing voter participation.   

RCV promotes political competition and allows people to vote for their favorite candidates, eliminating the "spoiler" and "wasted vote" syndromes and making it easier for independent candidates and third parties to bring fresh, innovative solutions to the table. It also requires candidates to reach beyond their narrow base to a broad majority of voters. Enacting it at the state level would go a long way in curtailing the hyper partisanship that afflicts our state government and has engendered frustration among voters. 

We're not alone in recommending this solution. RCV enjoys broad cross-partisan support in Minnesota and is gaining national attention as an important cure for our political dysfunction. In a Jan. 13 report, William Galston of the Brookings Institute recognized that critical economic reform isn't possible given "the current level of political polarization" and recommends RCV as an antidote to "excessive partisanship." 

In the Harvard Political Review's Jan. 25 piece, "The Making of the President 1789-2012," authors Jay Alver and Humza Bokhari point to RCV as the cure for the nation's divisive, insufficiently representative presidential election process. RCV "would allow supporters of all parties to play a role in the president's selection."

RCV isn't some fanciful experiment: We know it's doable and we know it works. St. Paul's debut of ranked choice voting for City Council elections last November was, by most accounts, a resounding success. Minnesota's capital was one of six cities using this increasingly popular method of voting this past November: San Francisco used it to elect a mayor, as did Portland, Maine, and Telluride, Colo. Two other cities — Takoma Park, Md., and Cambridge, Mass. — elected council members. Those cities join others, from Minneapolis to Oakland to Hendersonville, N.C., in taking an important, workable and cost-effective step to heal our country's enfeebled political system.

Adopting RCV does require voter education (not a bad thing in any event, as it increases familiarity with the process and heightens citizen engagement) and other start-up costs, but this short-term investment is offset by long-term cost savings and the replacement of aging voting equipment with RCV-capable machines. More importantly, the initial costs are outweighed by the creation of a vastly more fit and robust democracy. 

It's past time for ranked choice voting to be a part of our state and national discussions. We hope that the Minnesota Legislature moves to make RCV available for all local elections — and that it then considers ending our string of plurality governors by adopting RCV for all statewide offices. Then, perhaps, Minnesota can again become a model of good government by demonstrating the positive impact RCV could have on federal elections.