St. Paul prepares to decide on instant runoff votingby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul voters will decide next Tuesday whether to change the way they vote in future municipal elections when they cast their vote on a referendum to switch St. Paul to Instant runoff voting.
That same day, Minneapolis will use Instant runoff voting for the first time. Minneapolis voters approved the new system in 2006, with an overwhelming majority and no organized opposition. But in St. Paul, there's a group putting up a fight.
Chuck Repke said he didn't want to be the face of the opposition to Instant runoff voting in St. Paul. He's a longtime DFL activist and Instant runoff voting is a popular cause among Twin Cities liberals. But Repke doesn't like it.
"I wish I'd find where the Kool-Aid was so I could drink it, because I don't get why my progressive friends think this is such a great idea," Repke said.
The idea is to let voters rank the candidates for mayor and city council. Instead of just picking your favorite candidate, you designate a first choice candidate and, if you want to, a second choice, a third choice and possibly more.
If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then the candidate in last place is eliminated. People who voted for that candidate get their second choice instead, and you keep eliminating candidates and redistributing votes until one candidate has a majority.
As a voter, if you don't take the opportunity to rank all the candidates, then you may not have as much influence over the election as voters who do. Repke said that disenfranchises less-sophisticated voters, and puts more power in the hands of elite voters.
"If you're a regular MPR listener, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that you will ultimately learn how to understand this thing and you will vote correctly," he said. "You don't have to personally worry. But there are a lot of people who are not as informed as you are, and they end up being disenfranchised by this confusing and complicated voting system."
Ellen Brown, who is leading the pro-Instant runoff voting campaign in St. Paul, said that's elitist.
"When people say, well I'm sorry but only I'm smart enough to be able to know how to vote a ranked choice ballot," Brown said. "That's baloney."
As evidence, Brown points to San Francisco, which held its first instant runoff elections in 2004. Exit polls found 85 percent of voters said they understood the new system. Repke points out that means 15 percent of voters didn't understand the ballots.
It wasn't a St. Paul city election that drew Brown to the Instant runoff voting issue. It was the 2006 Minnesota governor's race. Brown wanted to get her friends to support Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson, but she kept running into the so-called "wasted vote" argument. Her friends liked Hutchinson, but they didn't want to throw their votes away on a third-party candidate.
"And so, I thought about that and I realized we got to have a change in the electoral system if we're going to get a candidate of the quality and caliber of Peter Hutchinson elected in Minnesota," Brown said.
If they'd had Instant runoff voting, Brown's friends could have made Hutchinson their first choice, and if he was eliminated, they'd still have their second choice vote as a back-up.
The "wasted vote" or "spoiler" problem comes up in elections where there are more than two candidates. It's worth noting that situation doesn't actually come up in St. Paul's general elections for mayor and city council. That's because the city currently has a primary election, which narrows the field of candidates for each office down to two.
But Brown said primaries have their own problem: relatively few voters show up for them.
"I think that's terrible," she said. "We can bemoan low-turnout primaries as much as we want, but we aren't changing things, unfortunately."
If St. Paul switches to Instant runoff voting, it would no longer need to hold a primary election for mayor or city council races. All the candidates would show up on the general election ballot, and voters would get to rank them.
But opponents of the voting system argue primaries actually serve a useful purpose. By thinning the field of candidates down to the two most viable contenders, they help general election voters focus on their choices.
Minneapolis voters will see 11 candidates for mayor on the ballot next Tuesday because of Instant runoff voting. St. Paul voters will see only two. They'll also see a ballot question that asks whether St. Paul should switch to instant runoff elections.
There will be only two choices: Yes or no.
- Morning Edition, 10/28/2009, 7:45 a.m.