Weary of our elections? There is a better way

Curtis W. Johnson
Curtis W. Johnson, former Minnesota college president, policy adviser and chief of staff to former Gov. Arne Carlson, chair of the Metropolitan Council, and co-author of four books about public policy.
Photo courtesy of Curtis W. Johnson

By Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson is a former Minnesota college president, policy adviser and chief of staff to former Gov. Arne Carlson, chair of the Metropolitan Council, and coauthor of four books about public policy.

Another election done, this one with record amounts of money spent to sway the vote. In its wake, I know only two kinds of people: political partisans for whom prevailing is paramount, losing is god-awful, and don't you dare mess with the system; and grumpy people who are weary of the whole thing, who wonder if there isn't some way to make candidates appeal to a broader range of citizens and offer strategies that actually match up with the major challenges ahead.

The grumps are right.

For state elections, there is a better way. It's called ranked choice voting (RCV). It has more power to restore majority rule than any of the minor changes now being bandied about.

In Minnesota, we've just traded divided government, with its theatrical episodes of paralysis, for unified government, which often leads to delusions of sweeping mandates and, in turn, to over-reaching agendas.

When I was active in state government, working for Gov. Arne Carlson in the 1990s, it was still possible — even admired at times — to forge solutions across party lines. In early December, an auditorium of admirers and activists who helped to pass the Minnesota Care law in 1992 gathered to remember how it was done. It was suitable that the event took place at the Minnesota History Center, because the discussion felt like we were examining some quaint artifact of a bygone era.

There's little comfort in seeing that that we do have three parties now. Since the election of Jesse Ventura as governor, a third party has visibly competed in the major races. But the reality is that no governor has been elected by a majority of voters since Arne Carlson.

Minnesotans will never have the kind of choices we deserve as long as the system suggests that voting for the person you think is the best candidate is a "wasted" vote. No one who's serious about voting wants to vote for that "best" candidate only to see his least preferred candidate win. So we all end up voting for our second-best candidate to prevent the least desirable candidate from winning.

The smarter alternative, RCV, has already been adopted by two of our cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. And despite partisan prophecies of chaotic consequences, it's actually working.

In an RCV election, voters can make their choices clear — who's first, second or third. The result: The winning candidate has a more than 50 percent majority. It's like a runoff, but without the extra dollars and delays.

A bill to facilitate greater use of RCV at the local level was introduced by Republican Rep. Tim Kelly and DFL Sen. Ann Rest in the Legislature last year; odds are good we'll be seeing that bill again in the very near future. It would extend permission for RCV to a wider circle of local governments.

Innovative ideas like RCV will interfere with the inertia on electoral reform at the Capitol when enough people tell their elected representatives it's time to change the system. It is an elegant if simple idea: Let the majority rule.