The rule in conventions is that you cannot win unless you get 60 percent of the vote. That high threshold is there to ensure that the eventual winner has broad support from those voting. To help ensure that someone reaches this threshold, the convention holds multiple ballots. These are essentially a series of runoffs in which those candidates with the fewest votes are dropped and their supporters then vote for their next-highest preference among those that remain. This continues until one of the candidates achieves the 60 percent threshold. In order to win, candidates cultivate second- and even third-choice votes as delegates rank their preferences. Depending on how many candidates there are, this process can take hours, but it results in a winner supported by the majority of those voting.
Not so in our primary and general elections, in which the winner is the person with the most votes — even if that person doesn’t get a majority. Put another way, you can win an election in Minnesota even if most people voted for someone else! In the DFL primary this year, that is exactly what happened. There were six candidates on the ballot. Tim Walz won though he got only 42 percent of the vote — 58 percent of people voted for one of the other five candidates. It would have been great if there had been a way for voters to keep voting until one of the candidates had at least 50 percent — a true majority. In some states this is done by holding a runoff election among the highest vote-getters at a later date. Having a second election is cumbersome, and a lot of people don’t come back a second time. Nevertheless, the winner can claim to represent the majority.
The good news is that we can get majority winners — as we do in conventions and runoffs — but in a simpler way. We can do this through what is called ranked-choice voting. That complicated-sounding name is meant to describe a simple, practical means to that end. It merely asks voters to do the following: 1) Vote for your favorite candidate as your first choice; 2) vote for who would be your second choice if your favorite got so few votes that they were dropped from the runoff; 3) vote for your third choice in case your second choice also got dropped for having too few votes. Ranked-choice voting is nothing more than a simple way to hold runoffs and ensure that the winner has a majority without requiring voters to keep coming back to vote again. It ensures not only a majority winner, but also higher levels of participation in the final result.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and now St. Louis Park use ranked-choice voting — and it works. Many other cities are interested but lack the authority. There will be a bill before the Legislature to make it possible for them to adopt this common-sense and cost-effective reform.
The Legislature will also have the chance to fix another looming problem. Right now it looks as if there may be a dozen or more candidates in the 2020 presidential primary that we will hold in Minnesota. Without a change, the “winner” will be the candidate who gets the most votes. With a dozen candidates in the race, the “winner” might get as few as 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote — meaning that nearly 9 in 10 people would have voted for someone else. We can avoid this calamity by applying ranked-choice voting to this most important primary. Doing so would establish Minnesota as a national leader, showing the way to correct one of the faults in a political system that people increasingly distrust and that Porter and Gehl found is hurting our economic competitiveness. While at it, the Legislature could go further and require that we have majority winners in every election in our state. Now is the time to act. It’s what we should expect in a democracy.
Peter Hutchinson is former commissioner of finance for the state and former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2006, he was the Independence Party candidate for governor.