Waiting for IRV
It's not quite as dramatic as the last time a recount stretched into December, but the Minnesota Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken remains unresolved, with new twists and turns seemingly every hour. Depending on who's making the claim, the margin at this moment is anywhere from Coleman by a few hundred votes to Franken by a couple dozen.
Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer/performer and Air America radio host, moved back to his home state a couple years ago to run against Coleman, a former Democrat who won his race six years ago after the incumbent Democrat, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash. Coleman defeated former Senator and Vice-President Walter Mondale, the replacement candidate; between November 2002 and January 2003, then-Governor Jesse Ventura appointed a local politician named Dean Barkley, who had chaired Ventura's campaign, to serve the last few months of Wellstone's term under the banner of the Independence Party of Minnesota.
This race was the only Senate contest to which I donated money this year, more than anything else out of a desire to see a Democrat retake the seat held by Wellstone, whom I revered as the greatest progressive citizen-legislator of my lifetime. That Coleman is a weasel who's probably corrupt figured into it too. But the usual dynamic of such a race--Coleman's record in office versus Franken's challenge, with their parties overlaid--was thrown off by the presence of Barkley as a third-party candidate with unusual name recognition by virtue of his former service in the Senate. (Those titles last forever; in debates, he's actually addressed as "Senator Barkley." That's the sort of thing that probably impacts the decisions of lower-information voters.)
The initial count was as follows:
Coleman (R) 42% (1,211,590)
Franken (D) 42% (1,211,375)
Barkley (I) 15% (437,404)
Aldrich (L) <1% (13,916)
Minnesota law mandates that a recount is automatically triggered when the margin is less than one-half of one percent; this margin was 0.007 percent. Barkley and the Libertarian, Charles Aldrich, combined for more than 451,000 votes, or about 2100 times as many as the number separating Coleman and Franken. Meanwhile, the drama of the recount reminds us that the democratic process is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it seems when you watch the hosts and pundits giving results on Election Night. Usually the overvotes and undervotes don't matter; when it's this close, they do. It's more than likely the Coleman-Franken race will be decided by how the Minnesota Board of Elections rules on various ballot challenges and other disputes.
Among other issues with this process, it renders the nearly half-million votes cast for neither of the major party candidates totally meaningless. It stands to reason that most of them had a preference between Coleman and Franken; that preference goes unrecognized, and even if it's a weaker sentiment than their support for Barkley et al or their disgust with the two other guys, I think most would rather have that decide a hairs-breadth close race than the judgment of the election board regarding disputed votes.
The way to record those preferences in races with more than two viable candidates is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). This system, so called because it essentially simulates runoff elections, has voters rank candidates in order of preference--so in this case, whoever of Coleman and Franken was the second choice of a majority of the Barkley voters, would have won. The system was invented by an American in the 19th century, but it's barely known here, unlike in Australia or Ireland. Somewhat ironically, a substantial majority of Minneapolis voters passed IRV as a ballot measure in 2006, and it will go into effect for local elections there next year; more ironically, the great champion of IRV in the state is the Independence Party of Minnesota, which used IRV in its 2004 presidential caucus voting to raise the visibility of the system.
I didn't see anyone having made the link between the Minnesota Senate race and IRV until tonight, when I had the idea myself and started poking around, but apparently there was an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a couple weeks back. Here's hoping the grinding process and uncertain result of the race there converts more voters and officials to IRV; improving our democracy would seem to be worth the few seconds of additional thought to rank choices beyond one's top preference.