It Keeps Going and Going

Anyone pining for the daily drama of the reality TV series Presidential Election: 2008 has to look no further than its spin-off Minnesota U.S. Senate Race: The Recount for on-going action. The hand recount tallies are in, but the state is far from being able to declare a winner. Unofficially, Norm Coleman leads Al Franken by 192 votes. However, the two campaigns have contested another 6,655 ballots. And in addition to these contested ballots it is estimated that around 1,500 absentee ballots that were not counted on election night were rejected due to administrative error, raising the question of whether they should be included in the recount.

There is enough legal maneuvering and confusion in this recount for me to write a whole blog post, but suffice it to say, after a protracted and nasty senate race, everyone wishes that this election would come to an end. Regardless of who wins, neither candidate received a majority of the votes. (The Independent candidate Dean Barkley garnered 15% of the votes.) This is a common story in recent times. Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota with 37% of the vote in 1998. In 2000 and 2004 the presidential elections were decided with less than a majority of the popular vote.

The Minnesota senate race exemplifies the ways in which our traditional electoral system is failing us. Rather than running on platforms that build consensus, candidates seek to polarize the constituency, with the hope that their portion of the voting public will be a sliver larger than their oppositions'. Third party candidates are viewed as 'spoilers' who steal votes from the two legitimate parties. And whoever does win is only supported by a minority, yet they purportedly represent everyone. Our system is in need of an overhaul.

Strangely, one viable solution can be found at the heart of the current election storm. The city of Minneapolis has instituted Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) for municipal elections, beginning next year. In this system voters choose their first choice candidate, as well as voting for their second and third choices. If none of the candidates wins a majority after tabulation of the first choice votes, the candidate with the least votes is taken out of the race. Anyone who voted for this candidate then has their second choice counted instead. If no candidate wins a majority, the process is repeated for the third choice selection. For an extended description or audio explanation of the system, click here.

Currently Ireland and Australia utilize this election system with great success. San Francisco (CA) and Pierce County (WA) also use IRV. Besides the benefit of electing officials that a majority of constituents want, the system obsolesces concerns about third party candidates as 'spoilers' and indeed encourages more diversity in the race. In addition IRV saves money and time. The almost $3 million expected to be spent on the Minnesota senate recount would not have been necessary had IRV been in place, because a clear winner would have emerged during the machine count.

Opponents of this system argue that IRV is too confusing. They hold up rejected ballots as evidence that Americans are already overwhelmed by the simple form of voting that's in place. However, an exit poll in San Francisco found that 87% of people report understanding the system, and less than 1% of ballots are rejected due to voter error, only slightly higher than single choice ballots.

Adopting the stance that innovation should not be applied to our electoral system because constituents would be required to learn is a sad statement on the dereliction our country has already suffered. If it is true that Americans lack the skills necessary to master IRV then the answer is to invest more in education. We profess to teach children how to read, write, analyze, follow directions, and collaborate. With these skills in hand, and access to informational videos through television or web sites like YouTube, everyone will be able to participate.

However, we don't need to rely on each constituent's ability to master the three choice ballot. Instead we can employ technology to streamline the voting process. Anyone who has banked online or used an ATM is familiar with the following scenario. You select the amount of money that you would like to transfer, deposit, or withdraw. You hit enter. The computer puts up a new screen that displays what you have selected to do and asks you if this is correct. You can push enter to continue or cancel to start again. At most ATMs you can select from a number of the most commonly spoken languages in the region.

We could follow this format to select our three IRV choices. As long as someone could read in their native language, this mode of voting would provide an error free transaction. Any investment in technology is expensive upfront, but the long-term profit in terms of more accurate elections and fewer recounts with fewer court battles, will outweigh the initial costs.

Sadly, Minneapolis' adoption of IRV is now being challenged as unconstitutional. The state's constitution stipulates that each person is only allowed one vote. Opponents claim that by selecting more than one choice, people are getting more than one vote. Proponents point out that a person's vote only counts once, because their first choice vote is thrown out if their second choice is tallied. A Hennepin County district court judge heard arguments on Thursday and will ultimately rule on whether IRV is constitutional.

That and many other plot twists are coming up on Minnesota U.S. Senate Race: The Recount in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned.

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