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Pioneer Editorial: Making all votes count with IRV

Sometimes, the phrase "every vote counts" isn't as simple as it sounds. Minnesota is finding that out now in the never-ending pursuit of a U.S. senator. In that case, Norm Coleman and Al Franken each want every vote counted, but there is disagreement over "legally cast" ballots. At any rate, the closeness of that race illustrates that each vote is important.

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday issued a decision that affirms an experiment in a voting process that puts true meaning to another voting phrase, "majority rules."

The ruling, written by Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, upholds the constitutionality of Minneapolis' instant runoff voting methodology, also known as ranked choice voting. The system allows voters to rank their choices on the ballot, assuring that the eventual winner is a majority winner of all votes case -- 50 percent plus one vote -- rather than the highest vote-getter but still not garnering a majority.

IRV balloting eliminates the process of separate primary and general elections in favor of a single election in which voters may rank all candidates for a particular office in order of the voter's preference. Counting of the ballots then simulates a series of runoff elections, each narrowing the field of candidates until a candidate achieves the designated threshold number of votes to be elected, according to Magnuson's decision.

In affirming the process, Magnuson wrote that "reducing the costs and inconvenience to voters, candidates and taxpayers by holding only one election, increasing voter turnout, encouraging less divisive campaigns, and fostering greater minority representation in multiple-seat elections are all legitimate interests" for Minneapolis to pursue. "Whether and to what degree implementation of IRV will achieve those benefits remains to be seen. But it is plausible that IRV may advance one or more of these interests."

While opponents argued that IRV allows unequal weighting of votes, Magnuson ruled that it still does not violate the court's one-person, one-vote standard as "every ballot and every vote is counted by the same rules and standards." IRV does not create vote inequality, he stated.

IRV is being sought for Minneapolis municipal elections. St. Paul and Duluth are among state cities interested in the IRV system, pending the outcome of the Minneapolis case. While the city of Bemidji hasn't officially taken a stand, there have been some presentations made to city officials on IRV. Eight jurisdictions in six states currently use the system, and nearly a dozen other cities are slated to use it in the near future.

A question mark remains over IRV's use in partisan, statewide elections. Certainly in the case of the most recent Senate election, Dean Barkley's role as a third-party candidate would have risen as his votes would have sorted out to Franken or Coleman and there would have been a winner emerging on election night.

But for now, we'd like to see more examples of this new experiment in democracy before rolling it out on partisan statewide elections. It seems ideal for local elections, especially with multiple candidates on the ballot such as school board and city council elections.

The Supreme Court decision helps to present that opportunity to more local jurisdictions, and is one worthy of study locally.