With Minneapolis IRV debut, Rybak easily triumphs, but system complicates council races like Samuels’

Mayor R.T. Rybak
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s victory comments focused on “hope.”

It was a strange Election Night celebration. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak seemed buoyant enough over the fact that he’d easily won re-election over a field of 10 candidates who are even more obscure than most of the people running for governor.

But on a night when Instant Runoff Voting/Ranked Choice Voting was the city’s big new political development, it’s appropriate that being mayor is only Rybak’s second choice of jobs. It’s expected that soon — perhaps before the final tallies are in on all the Minneapolis races — Rybak, who won more than 70 per cent of the vote, will announce that he’s now going after his first-choice position, governor.

Rolling easily to victory with 70 percent of the vote, Rybak last night was being more coy than usual about his future political ambitions.

“I’m going to do what I said I’d do,” Rybak said. “I’m going to take a deep breath, go back to work [in the mayor’s office] and talk to some people. I may enter that [gubernatorial] race. Let the dust settle.”

But speaking to his supporters, who summoned up a surprising amount of enthusiasm given the fact that the mayor’s race was without even a little drama, Rybak, now entering his third term, gave a speech that sounded a lot like a speech a gubernatorial candidate might give.

Rybak echoes familiar theme: hope
The theme of his talk was “hope.”

You’ve heard that theme before? Get used to it. One of the reasons Rybak thinks he has a chance to jump to the head of the line in the race for DFL endorsement is his close relationship with President Obama from his days as an early supporter. Assuming he does get into the crowded DFL gubernatorial field, the words “Obama” and “hope” are going to be flowing steadily from Rybak’s lips.

Among other things, Rybak declared that Minneapolis has “become a beacon of hope” in these difficult economic times.

Minneapolis also has become a beacon of Instant Runoff Voting.  On a night when St. Paul voters overwhelmingly re-elected Mayor Chris Coleman the old-fashioned way, that city’s voters also narrowly voted to use IRV in future elections.

Just what are voters getting themselves into?

Well, in Minneapolis, it appears it will be days before residents know the outcomes of Park Board and some city council races.

In a system that is supposed to more truly reflect the will of the voters, there’s one extremely interesting city council race to watch, the 5th Ward race on the city’s North Side.

In a traditional election, incumbent Council Member Don Samuels would have been celebrating Tuesday night. He hammered his closest foe, former Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee, by about 17 points.

But … Samuels fell short of the 50 percent plus one needed. Instead, he received about 47 percent of the first-choice vote to 30 percent for Johnson Lee. Kenya McKnight received about 16 percent of the vote. It should be noted that Samuels was the DFL-endorsed candidate, but Johnson Lee and McKnight each were listed as DFLers on the ballot.

Samuels a lightning rod
Samuels’ case could be interesting because in his first two terms in office he has been a lightning rod. As in previous campaigns, the attacks on Samuels have often been vicious. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that people who voted for either Johnson Lee or McKnight as their first choices did not list Samuels as any of their choices. Johnson Lee was the second choice of 33 percent of the voters; Samuels just 16 percent. Johnson Lee was the third choice of 22 percent of the voters; Samuels 20 percent.  

Samuels was blaming himself for some of his political problems.

“I have said some crazy things to alienate some people,” he said. “They [his opponents] used that against me very well.”

Samuels thinks he’ll survive because with IRV, the total voting pool will shrink by as much as 6 percent  meaning his percentage total will rise.

How does that happen?

“Let’s say 20 percent of the people voted for the last three candidates as their first choice,” Samuels said.

If a third of those voters voted for just one candidate — a candidate who is being dropped from the field — their vote will stop being counted in the process, thus a shrinking pool and a larger percentage for Samuels.

Still, it’s a strange situation. You have a candidate who clearly is the first choice of a solid plurality of voters and he could end up losing to a candidate who finished with 17 percent fewer first-choice votes.

The hand-counting process begins this morning. No one is sure when it will end. Samuels was questioning how people will accept the outcome no matter who comes out on top.

“At the end of the day, there might be harder lines drawn between people who support you and those who don’t,” said Samuels of this drawn-out process.  “I’m concerned that there could be a sense of disenfranchisement. I know if I do win, I’ll work hard to get past that.”

Samuels wasn’t the only incumbent council member caught up in the new voting web. Barb Johnson, one of the city’s most powerful political leaders, failed to pick up 50 percent of the vote in her race. She had a vote total of around 47 percent, 19 points ahead of Troy Parker. (Johnson was the endorsed DFLer, and Parker ran as a DFLer.)

Smooth IRV debut at polls
For the most part, IRV, or Ranked Choice Voting as they call it in Minneapolis, seemed to go smoothly at the polling place. The ballots are far simpler than the counting process.

Asked who he voted for as his second choice for mayor, “Let’s just say they were awesome,” Rybak said.  Later, he suggested that his son made an “awesome” second choice.

This is a little IRV joke. One of the  mayoral candidates on the ballot was Joey Lombard, whose ballot identity was “Is Awesome.”  He wasn’t. He picked up only 0.97 per cent of the first-choice votes, finishing ahead of the Edgertonite National Party’s John Charles Wilson, who was the first choice of 0.30 per cent of the voters. Wilson, you may recall, is the man who professes to believe that Laura Ingalls Wilder is God.

Lombard was the second choice of 5 percent of the voter and the third choice of 10 percent.

And in a few days, or weeks, we’ll understand what all of that means. By then, the newly elected mayor likely officially will be a candidate for governor. Because that’s his first choice.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by tom moore on 11/04/2009 - 10:37 am.

    Doug, why do you point out twice in your column that one candidate was DFL endorsed but that the other candidate(s) also listed DFL as his or her party on the ballot?

    City law says you can show your affiliation on the ballot. Endorsement is used in ads and articles running up the the election. It’s pretty simple and clear – but your mentioning it twice makes it seem like you think something is afoot. I don’t get it (in previous system, during primaries, the same system was used – you didn’t know who the endorsed candidate was by just looking at the ballot – and it was an open, non-party primary, just like the election was yesterday – so, nothing has changed in that regard).

  2. Submitted by Amanda Tempel on 11/04/2009 - 11:35 am.

    Something missing from the story: Incumbents not listed on the ballot this year and what impact that might have made on these races.

  3. Submitted by ellen wolfson on 11/04/2009 - 01:32 pm.

    I would like to protest the manner in which the at large park candidates were listed on the Mpls ballot. We had no opportunity for second choices or we were only allowed to vote for one of three candidates. I would like someone to explain this to me.

  4. Submitted by Jeanne Massey on 11/05/2009 - 09:05 am.

    Doug Grow writes: “In a traditional election, incumbent Council Member Don Samuels would have been celebrating Tuesday night. He hammered his closest foe, former Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee, by about 17 points. But … Samuels fell short of the 50 percent plus one needed. Instead, he received about 47 percent of the first-choice vote to 30 percent for Johnson Lee. Kenya McKnight received about 16 percent of the vote. ”

    It is true that under a traditional election, one of the candidates would have been celebrating Tues night. This would have been the case as well had machines been in place to tally the results, as they do in most cities using ranked-choice voting.

    The use of a hand count, not the new voting method, is the reason for delayed results.

    As the new system rolls out, people may be quick to forget that it replaces a traditional two-election (primary general election) and results used to come out in two phases.

    Under the old system, the five candidates in Ward 5 would have competed for votes in an even lower turnout primary election in September and then the final two (Don Samuels and Natalie Johnson Lee)would have competed for the same votes (and more) again in November (as they did four years ago).

    LENNIE CHISM 60 2.78
    DON SAMUELS 1015 46.99
    NATALIE JL 649 30.05
    KENYA MCKNIGHT 336 15.56
    ROGER SMITHRUD 92 4.26

    This time around, they all competed in a single election, with the greatest amount of voter participation. And by most accounts, the top two candidates campaigned much less negatively than four years ago as they needed to reach beyond their base and seek second choice votes from other candidates’ supporters.

    Don Samuels has a comfortable lead but the election isn’t won. Just like under a traditional election, a ‘runoff’ is needed to determine the winner. The results will likely be known ahead of schedule as election officials expect the hand count to proceed more quickly given lower than anticipated voter turnout.

  5. Submitted by Kyle Weimann on 11/05/2009 - 10:55 am.

    Ellen,
    My ballot let me rank my top 3 choices for the at large seats: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/elections/polling/ballots/MPLS_Ward%206%20-%20Precinct%202.pdf

    Hopefully you weren’t given an erroneous ballot–you should probably notify the elections department immediately if so.

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