No more “lesser of two evils”

Instant runoff voting offers hope for fairer elections and shorter, cheaper campaigns If you keep up with election issues, you […]

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Instant runoff voting offers hope for fairer elections and shorter, cheaper campaigns

If you keep up with election issues, you have probably heard of the term “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV). So, what exactly is it? And why is it such a big deal? This article serves as an IRV primer and can hopefully shed more light on why IRV may be the way of the future in Minnesota elections.

In actuality, Instant Runoff Voting is pretty simple. With our current voting system, the candidate with the most votes wins. With IRV it’s different; a candidate must get a majority (over 50% of the votes) to win. They don’t win just by getting more votes than any of the other candidates. If no one gets a majority, the IRV process drops a candidate and has a run-off. Still no winner? Drop another candidate and have another run-off. But here’s the twist: these run-offs all happen on Election Day as the votes are counted.

It works like this. As a voter, you get to look at all the candidates and rank them. “I really want Betty to win, but if she weren’t in the race, my next choice would be Isabelle. And if neither of these were in the race, I’d much rather have Bob than Tony.”

After these ranked ballots are cast, all the first choices are tallied up. If one candidate gets a majority, they are the winner. Election over. However, if no candidate receives over 50% of the votes, then it’s on to Round Two. During the second round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to each voter’s second choice. [As it turns out, Betty got so few votes, she was dropped from the ballot. Since she isn’t now in the race, your vote goes to Isabelle for Round 2.] If a candidate now has a majority, they win. If not, it’s on to Round Three, where the candidate with the fewest votes is again out of the race and votes are transferred. Eventually, a winner emerges from the field, and every voter got to cast a vote in every round of the runoff.

Proponents feel that IRV is a better way of voting than the system we currently use. Among other things, IRV would save money. IRV combines a two-round runoff, so there is no need to have a primary election. Supporters also think this change alone would lead to shorter campaigns, both decreasing the amount of money that is spent on campaigning and preventing some of the negative tactics. Jim Ramnaraine from Minneapolis commented, “My biggest problem with the way we vote now is the system seems to result in negative campaigns. By voting day, voters are often left selecting from the lesser of two evils. Outside Minnesota, many elections attract less than half of eligible voters in part because people get fed up with candidates.” Other benefits of IRV would likely include higher voter turnout by elimination of a primary, more equal footing for third party candidates to run for seats with accurate tallies of their support, and election of candidates through majority rule in one election.

Minneapolis residents recently voted to use IRV in the 2009 local elections. Despite the excitement surrounding this milestone decision, election administrators are wanting to take a bit more caution in implementing this voting system. Cindy Reichert from the City of Minneapolis Elections feels that there is still a long way to go between now and 2009 in order to prepare for IRV. According to her, “Several issues related to laws and rules and the equipment needed to run an IRV election still need to be addressed.” More specifically, Ms. Reich-ert stated that many current election laws do not apply to an IRV situation, and a thorough review is needed to identify areas of conflict.

IRV would dramatically change the way ballots are formatted (to accommodate its ranking system). The optical scanning machines currently in use in Minneapolis are not configured to run an IRV election. Manufacturers are working to design IRV-compatible equipment for Minneapolis. Ms. Reichert stated, “Our goal is to ensure that whatever equipment we use meets the requirements of federal and state law, including compliance with the ADA and HAVA.” Other issues — that are important but difficult to measure now — are the costs of transition to IRV and educating voters.


One of the main concerns for people with disabilities when it comes to IRV is how compatible it will be with the AutoMark voting machine. Right now, the AutoMark is programmed for the traditional ballot, not an IRV ballot. Manufacturers of these voting machines that help people with disabilities vote independently and privately are also working on designs that are IRV compatible. Only time will tell if these new designs will maintain the accessibility standards outlined in HAVA and state law.

In 2009, the people of Minneapolis will set a precedent as the first Minnesota city to use IRV. If IRV preparations get held up more than expected, the City Charter Amendment (that voters approved last year) allows the deadline to be postponed to 2013. It’s a very good possibility that IRV will be coming to St. Paul in the near future as well. Let’s hope many of the unanswered questions posed above will be answered by the time it does.

Mai Thor is the Voting Outreach Advocate at the Minnesota Disability Law Center

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