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Fresh from Tuesday’s narrow victory, St. Paul’s IRV faces court challenge over disputed endorsements

With a small turnout, St. Paul voters Tuesday narrowly approved Instant Runoff Voting, but today already, there’s a scheduled court hearing with opponents contesting how supporters presented their case.

The hotly contested measure passed 17, 083 to 15,486 — about 52.4 percent support — but the margin is closer than it might seem, because the law requires approval of 51 percent of those voting to pass a charter amendment.

The ranked-voting method appeared to work well in its first test Tuesday in Minneapolis, although voters in Pierce County, Washington — the Tacoma area — voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to throw out the system after a one-year experiment there.

Passage of the measure in St. Paul means the City Council must now pass an ordinance incorporating the new voting method into city statutes in time for the next city-wide election in 2011.

Under the plan, there will be no primary election in city-wide races only. Voters can designate one candidate as first choice and then, if they choose, rank others as their second and third choices. If one candidate doesn’t win a majority of the votes cast for first choice, the ranking system will kick in.

The new voting system would apply in mayoral and City Council elections but not in school board or Ramsey County Board races.

However, opponents aren’t conceding. Chuck Repke, who led an effort to defeat the change in voting methods, says that supporters wrongly claimed endorsement of the measure by the DFL Party, the League of Women Voters and even President Barack Obama, to further confuse voters on an already-confusing topic.

“Those false claims had to be worth at least 800 votes, and if there’s an 800-vote swing that gives us the majority,” Repke said this morning.

A probable cause hearing on his complaint will be held, via telephone, at 4 p.m. today by an administrative law judge.

Supporters of ranked voting — which appeared to work smoothly in Minneapolis in its first local test Tuesday — celebrated the win.

“We feel fabulous,” said Ellen Brown, coordinator of the Better Ballot Campaign that pushed hard for the change. “It was fairly close, which we think isn’t surprising when you have had as much discussion on this as we had.”

Supporters wanted the change because it will eliminate costly and low-turnout primary elections. They also believe it will give voters more choice on the ballot and cut down on negative campaigning.

But Repke and opponents of the measure say it is too confusing and will disenfranchise a lot of voters who don’t understand the system.

“Surveys in other cities show that at least 15 percent of the voters will be totally confused by what they’re doing. Even in San Francisco, after using this six times, they found that only 87 percent knew what they were doing,” Repke said.

“And if you break it down by race, income and education, they found a much higher percentage of what I call ‘less sophisticated’ voters didn’t understand what they were doing,” he said.

On Tuesday, one St. Paul voter interviewed by the Pioneer Press clearly didn’t understand the one-sentence ballot question that occupied 16 lines on the ballot.

“I didn’t know what it was. It was something about how we vote. I said yes. I hope that was the best choice,” she told the paper.

Brown, though, says that opponents are underestimating St. Paul voters.

“The data has shown that people understand it well, and Minneapolis demonstrated that voters will get it, with the right kind of voter education,” she said. “I think it’s insulting to voters to argue that they’re not smart enough.”

And while supports believe the new system will lessen negative campaigning, Repke says the opposite will prove true.

Repke, a longtime activist known as a wily DFL strategist, says ranked voting will lead to even more negative campaigns, as candidates demonize a particular candidate and urge voters to vote for anyone else.

“If you like Smith but dislike Jones, you’ve got an incentive to make voters really hate Jones.  You tell people we’ve really got to stop Jones, because he’s evil. You tell people to vote for whomever you want as first choice, but then vote for everyone but Jones on the other rankings. This way, you’ll reap the benefits of all the Jones haters,” he said.

And acknowledged Repke, who has run many political campaigns: “I’ll be the worst at it. I’m begging people, ‘Don’t make me run negative campaigns.’ “

On the legal challenge, Repke called the supporters’ claims to have the endorsement of the DFL Party, the League of Women Voters and even President Obama the most flagrant violation of campaign laws that he’s seen in 30 years. According to Repke,  the president had supported legislation years ago in Illinois on some form of ranked voting but never weighed in on this particular ballot measure. Neither did the DFL Party or the League issue endorsements on the specific St. Paul ballot question, he said.

Said Brown:

“Maybe [we] weren’t as careful as might have been [in claiming the endorsements]. The reason it never occurred to us, is the people working on this campaign are used to campaigning for specific people, rather than ideas. And when you’re supporting a person, that implies endorsement, but you can support a principle, like ranked voting, without maybe taking a position on specific initiatives.”

Joe Kimball writes about politics, St. Paul and other subjects. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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