Primary shows once again the flaw in our electoral system

Peter Hutchinson
Peter Hutchinson.
Photo courtesy Peter Hutchinson

By Peter Hutchinson

Peter Hutchinson is the former president of the Bush Foundation, commissioner of finance for Minnesota and superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools. He was the 2006 Independence Party candidate for governor.

Another primary election has come and gone but the results are still the same. A pathetically small number of true believers decide the fate of our democracy by electing people at the extremes of party ideology. Thoughtful good-government types then wail and whine about the outcome, asking, "When will it ever end? How can we stop the paralyzing polarization that has overtaken us?"

The answer is that it will never end. We are getting exactly what the system is designed to produce. If we want a different result , we cannot blame the voters or the candidates. We need to change the system.

All systems produce the results they do by design. If we don't like the result we need to change the design. Our election system doesn't work. People know that. Exhorting good people to run for office in a system that punishes practical experience and rewards ideological extremism won't do it.

Similarly, exhorting people to "show up" won't get them to turn out if they feel that the system offers them nothing but bad choices or that their vote won't count. It's going to take something a lot more ambitious if we are going to get our democracy back.

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A great place to start would be to require that a candidate get a majority of the vote to win an election.

This may be a shock to many, but in Minnesota you don't need a majority (more than 50 percent) to win an election; you only need the most votes. Jesse Ventura, Tim Pawlenty and Mark Dayton all won the right to be governor, but none of them was elected by a majority of voters.

The same is true in most primary and general elections that have more than two candidates running. Once there are three, four or more candidates in an election — a growing trend in this state — you can win with a lot less than 50 percent. Tuesday, three important state and federal races were decided by a small plurality of voters: Ray Dehn narrowly won with 37 percent in Minneapolis' House District 59B; Foung Hawj with 44 percent in St. Paul's Senate District 67; and Rick Nolan with 39 percent in Congressional District 8.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can change the law.

In many states and other nations, when there are more than two candidates and no candidate gets more than 50 percent, they hold a runoff election after dropping those who got the fewest votes. With a smaller list of candidates to choose from, everyone is invited to vote again. If in the next round no one gets 50 percent, they drop the lowest vote-getters and do it again. They keep doing so until one candidate gets at least 50 percent.

Such a process has several significant benefits. First, it assures that the person elected has the support of the majority of the voters. Second, it forces the front-runners to pay attention to the supporters of those who got the fewest votes, thus pushing them to appeal to more than just their own narrow base of supporters. Third, it assures voters that their votes are never wasted.

Too often, voters go through a complex calculus that leads them to think, "I can't vote for my first choice, who I love but might not win, because if they don't win my third choice, who I despise, might win. Therefore I have to vote for my second choice." In a system of runoffs they can vote with confidence for their first choice, knowing that if he or she does not prevail they will still have the opportunity to cast a vote that leads to someone winning a majority.

Ironically, this process is exactly what is used in most political caucuses and conventions — rounds of voting among multiple candidates continue until someone gets a majority, or in many cases 60 percent. There is no good reason that runoffs leading to a majority are not the law for our elections.

The biggest objection to this idea is that every election takes time and costs money. The prospect of multiple runoff elections would be daunting for voters and the election system. Fortunately, we have a solution available to us right here in Minnesota. Instead of holding one election after another until we get a majority winner, we can hold them all at the same time.

Here's how it works. When you go to vote you begin by voting for the person you most want to win — your first choice. Then you ask yourself, "If that person comes in last, who would I vote for in a runoff among the remaining candidates?" That becomes your second choice. Then you ask yourself, "If my second choice came in last in this round, who would I vote for in the third round?" That would be your third choice. If there were more candidates, you would keep asking yourself that question and making your choices.

Ballots can now accommodate having voters rank their choices among multiple candidates, and we have developed systems to allow us to count and recount until someone gets at least 50 percent. This is called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), and it is now in use in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. It can and should be in use statewide.

It can produce all of the benefits of runoff elections — winners get majorities, but only if they appeal to voters beyond their activist base. And voters get the peace of mind of knowing that their vote will never be wasted.

For state-level elections, some propose using RCV in partisan primaries and then again in the general election. But given that voters don't bother to show up for primaries (just 9 percent in Tuesday's election), why not eliminate the primary altogether, as is done in local RCV elections? The whole election can be handled in November. Just put all of the candidates on the ballot, let them make their pitch to the voters, and in a high-turnout election let the voters rank them from top to bottom. Then use those rankings to assure that the winner is the one who gets the support of a majority.

If we want a democracy that assures that winners get at least a majority of the votes from the largest number of voters in high turnout elections, we need to change the rules to make that happen. If we do, we will get candidates and officeholders who appeal not just to the fringe, but to the majority.