Instant Runoff Voting boosts voting power for communities of color


In 1975, voters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, elected their first African American mayor using Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). The losing candidate filed suit, claiming that IRV is unconstitutional.

He lost again. And so have other opponents who have attempted the same tactic in other states.

Opinion: Instant Runoff Voting boosts voting power for communities of color

As elected leaders from communities of color and champions of voters’ rights, we are concerned about dubious claims against the constitutionality of IRV now rising in Minnesota and efforts to keep IRV off the ballot in St. Paul, slowing down the momentum for this exciting reform statewide.

In 2006, Minneapolis voters passed IRV and will first use it next year. This year, Saint Paul voters filed a petition to put IRV on the November ballot, giving voters the opportunity to adopt IRV for their local elections. Efforts are underway elsewhere in the state, too.

IRV allows voters to rank candidates from their first choice to their last choice on the ballot. The process is simpler and cheaper than our current two-step elections.

Here’s how it works to elect a council member or a mayor: Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. The first-choice votes for all candidates in the race are tallied. If a candidate has a majority, then that candidate is the winner. If not, the least popular candidate is eliminated.

Voters who ranked this defeated candidate first now have their second choice counted instead and all ballots are recounted in an “instant runoff.” This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority.

The effects of IRV are huge, and we believe it is one of the best modifications in our voting system — for communities of color –— since the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

For starters, all candidates get to go to the general election because the primary is eliminated. No longer will folks be excluded from running simply because they didn’t have enough funds or didn’t mobilize their base in a low-turnout primary — just five percent in the last St. Paul city election.
This extra step in the voting process — which gets very little attention from the media and “get-out-the-vote” organizers — is a real barrier to voter participation.

Primary turnout is lowest in communities of color, meaning we have very little voice in this weeding process. Our candidates have a hard time getting through in any district that isn’t predominantly comprised of people of color.

In contrast, we turn out in proportionally higher numbers in general elections. With IRV, our effective participation and, therefore, voting power is greater, expanding opportunities for candidates of color to represent us.

In San Francisco, the most ethnically diverse city using IRV to date, voter participation more than doubled citywide in the 2005 election, and in the city’s six most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods turnout quadrupled, according to a June 2008 report by FairVote and the New America Foundation.

Second, by eliminating the primary, IRV not only reduces the cost of running an election, it also reduces the cost of running for office. This makes the process more accessible for candidates with few resources and those representing low-income communities.

Third, IRV empowers voters to vote their preference without worrying about wasting their vote and splitting votes among like-minded candidates. This means several candidates representing communities of color can run without splitting support among shared constituents and increasing the winning prospects of a candidate of color.

Fourth, in elections where we elect two or more citywide candidates at a time, like on the Minneapolis Park Board, ranked choice voting makes it easier for minority voting groups to win. This kind of proportional representation assures the broadest and most accurate representation of a community to elected bodies.

Fifth, with IRV, candidates must not only take into account a voter’s first choice, but also their second choice, which forces a broader spirit of cooperation and civility and less mudslinging among the candidates.

Last, but not least, voters like it! Exit polls consistently show that the vast majority of voters, from all ethnic groups, understand how to use IRV and prefer it over traditional two-round or plurality elections.

IRV is a powerful voting reform taking root in Minnesota and sweeping the country. New voices — representing traditionally underrepresented communities of color — will be empowered and gain greater representation at the table of public policymaking and distribution of our public resources. It is a fundamental step towards rectifying the lingering post-Jim Crow barriers to democratic participation.

The future is now. We must look beyond current elections and aim for long-term reform if we are to broaden and deepen our democratic foundations. We urge our fellow elected leaders to join the will of the voters in Saint Paul and place IRV on the ballot this November.

We will be watching Minneapolis closely next year as it becomes the first in the state to model this inspiring reform. These early efforts in Minnesota will pave the way for other cities to adopt this meaningful and do-able reform.

Senator Mee Moua to 651-296-5285, and Council Member Ralph Remington to 612-673-2210.