St. Anthony Park activist leads run at instant-runoff voting

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St. Anthony Park activist leads run at instant-runoff voting
by Anne Holzman, Park Bugle
Kathleen Murphy, a St. Anthony Park activist, is one of the brains behind a drive toward instant-runoff voting that appears to be gaining traction in St. Paul as well as statewide.

Minneapolis voters approved IRV for city elections by a wide margin in November, although the new system already faces a court challenge.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who helped with the Minneapolis campaign before being elected to office, said there are enough cities interested in alternative voting systems that he has proposed a statewide task force to support their efforts.

Sen. Ellen Anderson is among the authors of this year’s Senate File 39, which would allow instant-runoff voting in all Minnesota elections and describes ballot specifications and rules for counting votes in elections all the way from municipal to presidential.

A city would still have to hold a referendum before launching IRV. Sen. Anderson is also backing the St. Paul effort.

Murphy and her group, the Better Ballot Campaign, hope to get St. Paul on board this year. They’re trying to get the City Council to bring the question to voters in the city elections next fall. In case the council backs off, they’re also circulating petitions in an attempt to get the question on the November ballot themselves.

Because its elections are guided by the city charter, St. Paul — unlike many smaller cities — does not need the Legislature’s approval to adopt the measure. The city does have to meet the state constitution’s standards for election, however.

IRV is one of several alternatives to the “first past the post” or “plurality” system that has been nearly universal in United States elections for most of the country’s history.

Proponents of IRV say it will offer voters more choices and open up races to third parties shut out of the current system, as well as save money by eliminating the need for primaries.

Detractors say voters will only be confused by longer ballots and the need to memorize more candidate choices, and that there’s nothing wrong with electing candidates by a plurality rather than a majority.

Instant-runoff voting lists all candidates on a single ballot and lets voters rank their choices. A voter can rank only a top choice, rank all the choices or stop anywhere in between.

If a candidate gets a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of first-place rankings, then that person is the winner. If no candidate gets a majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are reassigned based on those voters’ second choices.

The recounting continues until someone has a majority, hence the term “instant runoff.”

“I think it’s a good form of democracy,” Murphy said.

Murphy became interested in IRV during the 2004 legislative session, when the city of Roseville tried to get the state’s permission to use IRV in its municipal elections. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House.

It attracted Murphy’s attention because she serves the Midwest Health Center for Women as a lobbyist, and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which opposes Murphy’s group on abortion, was instrumental in defeating the Roseville measure.

“It ended up being something that was an MCCL-scored vote,” Murphy said. “They believed instant runoff would hurt their candidates.”

That bill would have given Roseville an exemption from Minnesota law, which doesn’t support instant-runoff voting in its current form. Roseville, like many Minnesota cities, does not have its own election rules and thus operates under state guidelines.

Secretary of State Ritchie said he has not taken an official position on alternative voting systems but that as a private citizen is “very interested in seeing what we can learn from the Minneapolis experience.”

His office also has a bill moving through the Legislature that would fund a $50,000 task force offering legal research and expertise to help municipalities explore voting systems and stay within legal boundaries.

“The goal will be to help provide some framework,” he said.

The League of Women Voters of Minnesota has published a study, Alternative Voting Systems: Facts and Issues, that finds IRV meets tests laid out in a 1912 state Supreme Court decision that tossed out a Duluth voting system, Brown v. Smallwood. The League’s study is available at www.lwvmn.org.

Murphy said the St. Paul effort is modeled mostly on Minneapolis but that the experience of other U.S. cities has been instructive.

She said exit polling in cities after their first IRV elections showed very positive reactions, and that a “massive voter education campaign” was important in each case.

The St. Paul effort grew from a student project at Mounds Park Academy in which Green Party and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party activists participated.

Murphy was one of the DFLers in the group, and when the students had wrapped up their project, Murphy said, some of the advisers “stuck together as a leadership group” for a real-life government project.

Murphy said she hopes the St. Paul City Council will approve taking the IRV question to the voters. That would allow the council to decide when and how to make the switch and designate funds.

“We’re not trying to suggest when it should be implemented,” she said. “City leaders should decide when.”

The city’s charter commission can also put a question on the ballot, and a citizen group can do so by collecting enough signatures.

Murphy’s group, the Better Ballot Campaign, is collecting signatures now and figures they need about 5,000 to meet the standard of 5 percent of the number voting in the last municipal election — plus extras to cover for the inevitability of invalid signatures.

They recently pushed for resolutions at DFL precinct caucuses in support of IRV and appeared to prevail citywide, according to press reports. Murphy said at least half the precincts in Ward 4 supported the resolution. An effort in Ward 3 Republican caucuses was voted down.

Party caucuses have no direct bearing on the process, Murphy said, but the group hopes to create a “buzz” in favor of IRV that will encourage the council to put the question on the ballot.

They’ve set themselves a May 6 deadline to deliver petitions to the council, whether or not they have enough, in hopes that the signatures they do have will help persuade the council.

Since St. Paul’s elections are administered by Ramsey County, Murphy’s group has sought advice from Joe Mansky of the county’s elections office.

“He’s offering some good insight” but not taking a position on the matter, she said.

Technical issues that county and city would have to work out include the purchase of machines and the appearance of the ballot.

Murphy said the three major manufacturers of election machines are all working on alternative voting systems, and

St. Paul’s current scanners might be able to handle the first round of IRV counts but not subsequent rounds.

She said the city is not scheduled to purchase new machines until 2012. The Better Ballot Campaign recommends paper ballots to back up electronic counts.

As for what the ballots would look like, Murphy said they’ll look like current primary ballots but that no one has yet gone into design details.

For Murphy, the campaign for instant-runoff voting has to go on outside long hours in a busy legislative season, as she continues her regular lobbying work.

“I didn’t intend to be quite this involved,” she said with a chuckle. “There was one week that I think I was at an IRV meeting every single night.”