Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Instant Runoff Voting violates citizens' rights


Instant Runoff Voting violates citizens' rights
3/24/2009 7:10:01 AM
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By Andy Cilek

In response to former Post-Bulletin Publisher Bill Boyne's column titled "the U.S. is ready for election reform," I'd like to offer some counter arguments to his misguided idea that we should adopt a new voting system in which voters rank their candidates, rather than vote for one.
There is a lot of hype these days about a new preferential voting system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV is being touted by well-funded, highly organize groups, including FairVote, as a new system that makes elections fairer and makes the outcome more "democratic."
The claim is that IRV gives voters more choices, creates majority winners and is easier and less costly to operate. Even if these logistical arguments were valid, which they are not, they are merely side issues that miss the point.

It's not about how IRV might affect the candidates, the parties or the outcomes of elections; it's about what preferential voting does to the voter and to the vote itself. The fatal flaw of IRV is that it violates the rights of voters. There are many reasons for this, but it boils down to two:
The first is that IRV is "nonmonotonic." Very simply, this means a voter's ranking order can have an effect other than what the voter intended. This is because of the mathematical complexities that come into play during the vote-transferring process.
With IRV, a voter can harm his favorite candidate simply by raising him in rank, or ranking him/her as their first choice.

This alone should eliminate IRV as a viable option. Voters shouldn't need a calculator to determine if they are helping or hurting the cause of their favorite candidate.
The second problem is that IRV forces voters to either dilute the strength of their ballot by not ranking all the candidates, or rank candidates whom they do not prefer at all. Thus, the voter must either violate his own equal protection rights, because other ballots would carry more weight, or violate his own rights of association, by "voting" for a candidate he opposes.
Any system that forces voters to disenfranchise themselves this way ought to be rejected out of hand.

IRV is not a new system. It will not create true majority winners, but merely the illusion of a majority, and is likely to cause more logistical problems and confusion than traditional plurality voting. This is why Georgetown University's student association has recently abandoned IRV for its elections.

In 1915 a different, but similar, form of IRV was implemented in Duluth, and was challenged in court. The Minnesota Supreme Court, in Brown v. Smallwood, ruled it unconstitutional saying, "Preferential voting directly diminishes the right of a voter to cast an effective vote for the candidate of his choice."

The court further stated: "The quotations made from the different cases are NOT chance expressions. They are indicative of the idea, which permeates all legal thought, that when a voter votes for the candidate of his choice, his vote must be counted one, and it cannot be defeated or its effect lessened, except by the vote of another elector voting for one."
IRV is a violation of this well-established view of the rights of voters in a representative democracy like ours. Our small, grassroots group, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, is pursuing legal action to stop the implementation of IRV in Minnesota.
Last month, the Hennepin County District Court issued an initial ruling concerning the constitutionality of IRV that was full of factual misconceptions and faulty legal arguments. The Hennepin County District Court failed to grasp the concept embodied in State Supreme Court precedent.

While Minneapolis voters were presented with an alternative voting system through a referendum, they did not bargain for unconstitutional ordinances passed after the fact. Despite the fact that IRV is a system of voting which fails to count all ballots equally, and that places voters in the precarious position of not knowing whether or not their first-choice vote will help or hurt their own favorite candidate, the district somehow found that not to be in conflict with basic notions of constitutional principles.

It is especially disconcerting when a lower court disregards State Supreme Court constitutional precedent and principles found in Brown v. Smallwood. Luckily, there is a process for review.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance and the city of Minneapolis have jointly requested an accelerated review by the State Supreme Court. All parties expect the high court to hear the case within two months to finally resolve this issue. Quite frankly, we like our chances.
We encourage any interested citizen to visit our Web site:, where we go into much detail on this vital issue.

Andy Cilek is executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance.