16 June 2009

On the other hand (Iran)...

...I have to admit that it is extremely impressive that Twitter's #iranelection tag is still seeing no fewer than 30 tweets a second. It's a serious firehose of information, and appears to be the main way the entire action is being held together. Iran seems, so far, unable to plug all of the holes that are letting Twitter work there.


I find myself unable to care on more than a very basic, entirely intellectual level about what's going on in Iran right now.

Some of it is the firm belief that, no matter what happens to the politics there, it won't actually change our relationship with them. They'll still hate America. We'll still be rivals for power and influence in the region. They are, in fact, our enemy in that region, and not the least bit abashed to say so, themselves. They'll still be trying to build a nuclear arsenal. They'll still be working actively for the destruction of Israel.

It's not, mind you, that I think they deserve to have their election stolen from them. They definitely do not. It's just that it's not going to be the magic wand, hearts-and-flowers fix that everyone thinks it will if the current protests actually lead to the kinds of change we'd like to see over there.

I'm also not as firmly convinced as everyone else seems to be that the election was, in fact, stolen. It's easy for us to assume that it was, because we believe the current regime to be Evil Incarnate and therefore capable of doing just about anything. And in truth, I don't put it past them, at all. I'm just not convinced it happened.

Which makes what's happening right now an attempt at a coup, rather than an attempt to correct an abuse of the democratic process.

Of course, it could all really be that I am currently wrestling with a much more local, personal tragedy in my social cloud. It's at least possible that my emotions are too tied up dealing with a friend's senseless suicide to spare any for the larger issues of the day...

11 June 2009

MN Supreme Court upholds Instant Runoff Voting in Minneapolis

I haven't posted for a little while, but today something crossed the plane of my attention that seemed interesting enough to talk about. Today, Minnesota's Supreme Court turned away a "facial" challenge to Minneapolis' voter-approved Instant Runoff Voting system. You can find their decision in full here.

The Minneapolis IRV system has never actually been implemented, yet, so this challenge was not to the application of the ordinance, but to the concept of it. Hence, the term "facial" challenge, which is shorthand for the contention that, on its face, the ordinance is unconstitutional. Because all enacted law is considered constitutional unless proven otherwise, in a facial challenge, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs, and the bar is set high. The plaintiffs have to demonstrate that there is no possible way that an ordinance or statute could be implemented constitutionally.

As such, the court rejected a host of theoretical arguments, both against and for the the ordinance, in favor of answering whether it was possible for the ordinance to result in an election that met constitutional hurdles for protecting the individual right to an equal vote. The court noted that the right to vote is not absolute and unburdened. Courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of states and localities to define election procedures, which by definition will almost always impose some sort of burden upon the voter's right to cast their ballot. In Richfield, for example, I have to cast my ballot at my assigned polling place, not at any old polling place within the city. This is considered a reasonable burden.

So, in order for the IRV ordinance to be unconstitutional on its face, the plaintiffs had to prove that, under all possible circumstances, IRV imposed a heavier-than-necessary burden upon the right to vote, or deprived that right entirely from certain classes of voters.

The appellants (originally plaintiffs), the Minnesota Voters Alliance, attempted to make this case by contending that IRV violates one-person-one-vote and equal protection. Part of their argument was a claim that, in subsequent rounds of the instant-runoff procedure, individuals who voted for eliminated candidates have a second chance to vote, while individuals who voted for surviving candidates do not. The city countered, and the court agreed, that in fact, just as in an ordinary runoff, each round starts the counting anew, as if a new election had been held, but assumes that individuals' preference choices remain the same. Thus, in the second round, people who voted for a candidate as their first choice still have their vote counted, just as it was in the first round. The difference is that now, people who voted for that same candidate as their second choice are counted for that candidate instead of the one that was eliminated.

Functionally, the court, ruled, this is exactly the same as Minneapolis' previous system. Minneapolis had a non-partisan primary, which eliminated all but two candidates for each single-seat election (e.g. Mayor) and all but 2n candidates for n-seat elections (e.g. the Board of Estimate, which was elected en bloc rather than on a seat-by-seat basis).

(It's worth noting, by the way, that the Minnesota Voters Alliance opposes this scheme, as well, preferring partisan primaries in "first class" cities, but have never successfully challenged it.)

In the IRV system, all first-preference votes are counted first. if no candidate receives a threshold number of votes (e.g. a majority of votes cast for a single-seat election), then the candidate receiving the least number of votes is dropped. All first-preference votes for surviving candidates are then counted again, and then second-preference votes for the survivors are added. This is repeated until one candidate received the threshold number of votes.

So, the court ruled, while there are more rounds involved, IRV is functionally equivalent to the two-stage, primary and general election system previously used and long-since upheld, if one assumes that everyone who voted for candidates who survived the primary will vote for those same candidates in the general election. While noting that some voters choose to cast their ballots "strategically", voting in the primary for weaker candidates who will lose when put up against their actually preferred candidate, they ruled that there was no constitutional requirement that this capability be integral to the voting system chosen; and furthermore, since it's a hypothetical situation, it's immaterial to a facial case.

The court went on to refute just about every other complaint the appellants brought in a like manner, although they did note some specific circumstances under which the results could be challenged in the future. However, since no actual vote has yet been taken, and therefore those circumstances hadn't happened yet, they did not nullify the constitutionality of the ordinance on its face. They furthermore did not explicitly say that a challenge under those circumstances would succeed.

This means there will almost certainly be follow-up litigation once an election is held; but in the meantime, Minneapolis is poised for a grand experiment.