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Election administrators discuss ranked-choice voting facts and myths

A group of ranked-choice voting aficionados gathered at the University of Minnesota for a look at the Minneapolis election situation.

Despite the distraction of the near-death experience of the U.S. economy, a group of ranked-choice voting (RCV) aficionados gathered at the U of M’s Humphrey School Wednesday for a look at the situation, from an election administrator’s perspective, heading into Minneapolis’ big RCV experiment.

The speakers were Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl, the highest ranking bureaucrat running the election, and Doug Chapin, a scholar on election administration. What follows are summaries of the panelists’ comments.

Casey Carl:

One of the city’s ideas for helping things go smoothly has been to recruit “ambassadors” to many of the constituency groups that make up the city electorate. An ambassador will be fully briefed and trained in how RCV works and will be a contact person for the group he or she represents.

Carl continues to hear from and about people who are confused about how RCV works. There’s still  talk about people who plan to list only the candidate they most want to see win and leave their second and third choices blank. This is your right, but it’s a bad idea and don’t do it under the illusion that it helps your favored candidate more. Once you rank your favorite candidate first, your vote will continue to be counted for him/her as long there is any chance it can help that candidate stay in the race. But if your first choice is eliminated during the rounds of counting, leaving your second and third choices blank takes your input out of the final decision.

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Carl said he has heard from candidates who say they are encouraging their supporters to rank them second or third, in the bizarre belief that this will help them come from behind in later rounds of counting. That is completely wrong. There’s nothing you can do to help your top choice more than to rank him/her first.

If the immediate first look at the ballot totals on election day produces an obvious winner based on a first-preference majority for one candidate, the winner might be declared Tuesday night after the polls close. But in the likely event that no blowout winner is obvious, the longer process of counting and eliminating the candidates who can’t win and assigning their votes to each voter’s highest-ranked remaining preference will begin Wednesday morning.

The mayor’s race will be counted first and counting that race will continue until a winner is declared. Carl’s goal is to declare a mayoral winner by the end of Wednesday. After the mayor’s race, counting of other races will follow and some results will likely not be known until later in the week.

After having to devise a ballot with 35 candidates for mayor, Carl said it’s “inevitable” that the city will raise the current $20 fee for getting on the ballot. In St. Paul, it’s $500.

Doug Chapin:

The RCV experiment can be viewed as part of a “heyday” of election reform ideas that has taken off ever since the meltdown of the 2000 presidential election. (You remember, the Bush/Gore Florida election.) Things are changing fast. It’s more possible to register online, to vote early, to vote on a touch screen or an optically scannable ballot, and the spread of these and other innovations is still accelerating.

On the speed of the count: Notwithstanding the demand of modern society to know everything immediately, Chapin said he doesn’t consider it a big flaw with RCV that the results might be delayed a day or two. He quoted a saying: “You can have something fast, cheap or correct. Pick any two.”

Chapin also dismissed the idea (argued by both proponents and opponents of RCV) that the new system will substantially raise or lower turnout. Turnout is mostly influenced by other factors. He had a clever saying for this one, too: “Trying to drive turnout with an election is like trying to drive a screw with a hammer. It’s the wrong tool.”

P.S.: If you’d like to watch a two-minute video that the city developed to explain how RCV works, it’s here.