Because They Can

Six minor-party contenders for governor promise to bring back the primo dime-bag, turn the governor's mansion into a flophouse, tax water, get big brother out of your bedroom, ditch the nukes, and reveal the secrets of gravity-defying hair.

"I think their assumption is that it's hard to vote," Shilepsky says of his opponents. "My assumption is that there often isn't enough difference [between major-party candidates], so it's not worth the effort for most people."

Shilepsky wants you to be able to vote for whichever candidate you prefer in any given election, and still have a role in defeating your least favorite. His answer? Instant Runoff Balloting (IRB). By this computer-tabulated method, instead of casting your ballot for a single office seeker, you would rank your preferences 1-2-3. If nobody receives 50 percent of the first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest top rankings is knocked out; then, that candidate's second-place votes are redistributed to the remaining contestants. The process continues until one candidate breaks the 50 percent mark and is declared the winner.

Shilepsky, a former "Paul Tsongas DFLer" who left a party he believed wasn't centrist enough, argues that dark horses of all ideological stripes will have a much easier time getting support under with IRB. Let's say my friend and I are both smitten by the plucked eyebrows of People's Champion gubernatorial candidate Fancy Ray McCloney, but really, really don't want Republican Norm Coleman to win. Right now, we have to choose--between a "statement vote" for Fancy Ray, or a "strategic vote" for Skip Humphrey, the man most likely to prevent Coleman from occupying the governor's chair.

This sort of calculated voting, Shilepsky asserts, "is what really makes people cynical and not vote. You have to think about how everybody else is going to vote, and it forces you to look at the polls and pay too much attention to the horse race. That's depressing."

Under IRB, there's no dilemma: We rank Fancy Ray number one, and Skip number two (or three, if there's someone else we like better). If, somehow, Fancy Ray should finish last in the first round, our vote goes to surviving candidates with a better chance of winning, offering us added opportunities to thwart Coleman.

To be sure, some calculation remains, but voters would also have much more freedom to register their true preferences. If they do, alternative viewpoints would in turn get more support and be more influential in shaping the issues. "I think this would really open the system to new ideas that get washed out of the current winner-take-all system," he says.

It's not just the fringies who might benefit. Take Reform Party guber nominee Jesse Ventura, running as a fiscally moderate, socially liberal bridge between spendy DFLers and priggish Republicans. Even now, supporters of the taxophobic Coleman badger give-it-all-back voters not to "waste" their vote on Ventura and thus elect Humphrey. If Instant Runoff Balloting was in place, those voters could rank Coleman first and Ventura second (or visa versa) and at least be assured that a tax-slasher will win. If a majority of people feel that way, Shilepsky says, a system that produces such a winner would enjoy more public support.

Shilepsky also thinks IRB will undercut negative campaigning, especially in primary elections. "You will want to get second choices from your opponents, so you are more likely to be conciliatory rather than beat up opponents with a scorched-earth policy. But you still have to tell the voters why they should vote for you."

Currently in the U.S., the IRB system is used only in Cambridge, Mass., city elections, though leading political scientists call the concept sound. "It's credible," says University of Kentucky professor Malcolm E. Jewell, a national expert on state elections. "As a broad generalization, it's certainly true that voters are more likely to vote if they think their vote will have some real impact."

But retired University of Minnesota political science professor Charles Backstrom notes, "The problem would be getting the voters to accept a new system. It has been very difficult to get voters to participate. Most will, in fact, not rank the candidates"--in part, because they fear that doing so may somehow hurt their top choice and also because they may not be familiar with others in the field.

Backstrom also points out the more gargantuan challenge Shilepsky faces, even if he wins the secretary of state's seat in November: "Since everyone in the legislature got there with the present system, they are not likely to want to change anything."

Ironically, if Shilepsky triumphs, he will win in a system that he argues holds third-party candidates back. He says his race, however, is somewhat of an exception: an open seat for a relatively low-profile position against two major-party opponents (DFLer Edwina Garcia and Republican Mary Kiffmeyer), both of whom lack statewide name recognition.

Shilepsky understands that convincing legislators to rewrite the rules from such an unheralded position is sure to be a battle that will make David's victory over Goliath look modest. But Joan Growe has proven that Minnesota's secretary of state can command some attention from the bully pulpit, which Shilepsky says might be enough for Instant Runoff Balloting to gain muscle. "In a way, this is what it's all about," he figures. "An opportunity for people who have new ideas to be taken seriously."

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