IRV and St.Paul

Instant runoff voting deserves a spot on the St. Paul ballot.

In 2006, the citizens of Minneapolis voted to install “instant runoff voting” as a means to streamline municipal elections. In doing so, the city enacted a ballot system whereby voters would rank their preferences for each candidate, rather than casting a single vote for only one. However, in December 2007, a citizen’s group filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new measure, declaring that its complexity disenfranchises voters. While the consequences of the suit in Minneapolis are uncertain, the recent challenge in court caused the St. Paul City Council to decide against putting a similar measure on the 2008 ballot, voting 5-1 against even allowing its inclusion.

Instant runoff voting, which St. Paul moved to block, does indeed have support: the group FairVote compiled a petition of 5,300 signatures, indicating a respectable plurality. This point is further illustrated by the 65 percent support that the IRV initiative received in the 2006 Minneapolis vote. While the St. Paul City Council has resolved to place the measure on the ballot if it is determined to be constitutional, the court is unlikely to reach a conclusion that would bring the issue to voters this year.

This is unfortunate, in part because the St. Paul City Council is taking on an inappropriate role of making determinations based on uncertain constitutionality, but also because it is squelching the wishes of a popular measure. For the time being, FairVote Minnesota has elected not to sue the City of St. Paul over the Council’s decision, instead opting to support the Minneapolis measure as it goes through court. And though that may perhaps be the wisest political decision, it will no doubt disappoint supporters.

Rightfully so. The proposed switch to IRV has popular support, and any measure that has popular support ought to be given a chance to compete at the ballot box. Certainly, if the measure is determined to be unconstitutional, the government is right to be rid of it. But as it is, the city may ironically be disenfranchising a different set of voters by keeping IRV off the November ballot.