One Hand Washes the Other

Are the state GOP and an antiabortion group conspiring against runoff voting?

Last March, a proposal to allow instant-runoff voting in Roseville's municipal elections came before the Minnesota House of Representatives. Supporters of the measure, which essentially would permit voters to rank their preferred candidates, believed that the bill had enough support to pass. A companion measure in the Senate had already been approved by a margin of 38-26, with five Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the bill.

But at the last minute, according to supporters of the legislation, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life made it clear that the antiabortion group opposed the Roseville bill. The organization had notes delivered to legislators on the House floor imploring them to vote against the measure.

The MCCL's lobbying apparently paid dividends: Legislators ultimately rejected the bill by a 78-54 measure.

"It came as kind of a last-minute surprise to all of us," recalls Tony Solgard, president of FairVote Minnesota, a nonprofit group that has lobbied for instant-runoff voting. "It seems like it's pretty much general knowledge among folks at the legislature that if the MCCL doesn't want something to pass, it probably won't."

MCCL is a nonprofit advocacy organization that has been in existence since 1968. In 2003, the group successfully lobbied for a state law mandating a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. This legislative session, its main priority is the "Positive Alternatives Act," which would provide $5 million for groups that counsel women on options other than terminating unwanted pregnancies. Last month, Gov. Tim Pawlenty spoke at an MCCL event commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The once-fringe group now holds sway over several top Republicans around the state.

Various Minnesota municipalities have flirted with instant-runoff voting in recent years, including Minneapolis, Hopkins, and Bemidji. Under such a system, voters would be allowed to rank candidates in order of preference. If a voter's first choice is eliminated because the candidate fails to receive sufficient votes, the person's vote is then allocated to the second choice. Third parties would benefit from the adoption of such polling practices because it would eliminate the perception that people are wasting their ballots by voting for minor-party candidates.

Instant-runoff voting is on the legislative agenda again this year. Under the Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the 2000 election debacle, Minnesota has been allocated $36 million in federal money to spend on voting equipment. FairVote Minnesota and other supporters of instant-runoff voting, such as the state's Green Party, want to make sure that any equipment purchased with the federal funds can accommodate ranked ballots.

"Since there's this windfall of federal money, it's going to be a huge onetime expense, and it just seems really crucial that the state keep its options open," says Solgard.

A Senate bill providing for the allocation of the federal dollars had its first hearing last week, and already there are signs of MCCL's meddling. At the behest of Sen. Jim Vickerman, a pro-life DFLer from Tracy, the language in the bill regarding instant-runoff voting was tweaked to make it slightly less accommodating toward ranked ballots.

Solgard and other supporters of instant-runoff voting don't view the change as a fatal blow, but they worry about what it portends. "I think that certainly [MCCL's] opposition led to the introduction of this amendment," says Solgard. "It probably wouldn't have been an issue if they hadn't been actively opposing it."

(Vickerman didn't return a call seeking comment.)

The unanswered question is why MCCL, an organization primarily concerned with criminalizing abortion, is actively lobbying against instant-runoff voting. The advocacy group refuses to discuss the issue. "We don't have any comment on instant-runoff voting," says spokesman Bill Poehler. "The City Pages has never reported anything fairly related to us."

Kent Eken, a pro-life DFLer from Moorhead, says that he attempted to find out why the MCCL was getting involved in the issue last year, but couldn't get a clear answer from the organization. "The only response I got was that it was confusing for voters, which is patently false," recalls Eken, a state rep. "I really don't think that the MCCL should be taking a position on this issue. It's just a matter of democracy."

Eken believes that the MCCL is simply doing the dirty work of the GOP. For one thing, Minnesota GOPers are beholden to conservative special interest groups as never before. And since Republicans are now the majority party in state politics, they would potentially have the most to lose if instant-runoff voting is adopted and voters are granted a greater array of choices at the ballot box. "I've heard it said many times by many people, that the MCCL is nothing but a front group for the Republican Party," Eken says.

 
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