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Still confused? An FAQ on ranked-choice voting

Minneapolis has 108 candidates running in 22 different municipal races — many with no clear front-runner. Little drama is expected in St. Paul.

On Tuesday voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul will put ranked-choice voting — a difficult concept to grasp — to the test. Not since the electorate was introduced to hanging chads have ordinary folk hereabouts been so interested in the fine print concerning how their votes will be counted.

It’s the second time the system, which allows voters to cast backup votes in case their first choices don’t win, is being used in each city. But it’s the first time the system — which is supposed to make political contests more little-d democratic — is being used in a highly competitive mayoral race.

Little drama is expected in St. Paul, where Mayor Chris Coleman is likely to win a third term handily. The only other races on the ballot there are for the Ward 1 City Council seat vacated by Melvin Carter III and the school board.

Minneapolis, however, boasts 108 candidates running in 22 different municipal races — many with no clear front-runner. With Tuesday night’s campaign parties likely to end with little of the traditional political intel that allows for the forecasting of winners and losers, all eyes are likely to be on the new balloting procedures.

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Here, then, is a FAQ on what to expect at your polling place and in the hours and days after it closes.

I’m anxious. I have to vote tomorrow and I’m not sure how to mark my ballot or what the potential ramifications are of ranking candidates. Help!

Information aplenty

You may feel anxious now, but by the time you’re actually filling in your ovals, you’re likely to feel suffocated by assistance. Minneapolis elections officials last week mailed out information and sample ballots to all 247,104 registered voters and are prepared to get same-day registrants — there were more than 50,000 in 2012 — up to speed.

In addition to signs at the polling place and instructions printed on the ballots themselves, voters can expect to encounter three different elections judges who will offer help: A greeter, a demonstration judge who will read every voter scripted instructions and a ballot judge who will explain further rules. Voters can ask questions.

The City of Minneapolis created a video explaining how ranked-choice voting works in the city.

This is in addition to the efforts the elections folks make to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can. If navigating the polling place is too difficult, judges can arrange for curbside voting — in multiple languages, no less. If voters have concerns on the ground, the city’s 311 municipal hotline will have special instructions for securing quick responses.

As for voter fears about the possible effects of ranking their choices, well, perhaps a teensy bit of the blame can accrue to candidates who have articulated complicated — and highly speculative — theories about how second- and third-choice votes will win them a seat.

Ranked-choice voting’s nonpartisan boosters continue to insist that the best plan is to vote your gut. Whom do you want to come in first, and whom would you choose if he or she weren’t in the race? A vote is a vote, and if your first choice is knocked out of the race, so is your first-choice vote. Your second becomes your first, and so on.

St. Paul does it differently

Here our twin towns do things a little differently: In Minneapolis, voters select first, second and third choices. In St. Paul, voters can rank as many choices as there are candidates in each race. Residents of Ward 1, for instance, may rank all seven candidates.

The exception is the St. Paul school board, which will proceed as it has in the past. Voters will choose three candidates and the top three vote-getters will win.

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I’ve heard this referred to as instant runoff voting, but it sounds like it’s not going to be so instant. Why is it quite possible we won’t hear winners declared Tuesday night?

Because of the amount of tabulation that must be done by hand. State and federal laws specify standards for certification of voting systems. Neither set of laws has standards for ranked-choice voting systems, used by seven U.S. municipalities, nor are automated ranked-choice tabulation systems available.

All precincts’ data must be in before counting begins

In past elections, results trickled in by precinct as candidates watched, handicapping the race according to whether their likely pockets of support have been counted. The counting of ranked choices, however, can’t start until data from all 117 Minneapolis precincts is in.

At 8 p.m., the head judge at each precinct will tabulate the site’s ballots electronically and wirelessly transmit the totals to Hennepin County’s Elections Division. The county will add absentee ballot tabulations — which began on Saturday — and merge all of the results.

The county will then send the grand totals to both the city and the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will produce a precinct-by-precinct report that will include totals of all votes cast by ranking. As tempting as it will be to examine these numbers to try to handicap the next phase, don’t even try.

Because it’s impossible to know which second- and third-place votes come from which losing candidates, there’s no way to know which of the votes will end up getting cast. The only real utility of this data will be for post-election analysis by strategists and others interested in voting patterns.

The city’s counting process is more complicated. Municipal elections officials will download the county numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and quite literally sort it by column, with column one being first-choice votes cast.

Teams of two

Working in two teams of two, one at the keyboard and the other hovering on alert for errors, the counters will cut and paste the first column into spreadsheets for individual candidates. Those worksheets will calculate the tally.

There are very complicated checks and balances built in to ensure the process is replicable. Fundamentally, counters will save their work at every stage and compare their outcomes with those obtained by the other team. When there’s a discrepancy, both teams move back a step and start over.

Anyone who wanted their write-in vote tabulated individually had until seven days before the election to register with the city. No one did, so ballots with write-in votes will be counted and set, electronically, off to the side along with ballots that were improperly marked and those that do not contain first-choice votes.

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With the total number of ballots cast thus determined, a “maximum possible threshold” for victory — 50 percent plus one — will be established. If any candidate reaches that threshold with first-place votes alone, an unofficial winner is declared.

First-round results expected Tuesday night

Elections officials expect to be able to report first-round results Tuesday night. They will communicate the outcome on social media and on a placard in the rotunda at City Hall, and will also post results to the city’s website.

So if I go to bed Tuesday night without knowing the winner, will I wake up to that news Wednesday morning, as in other elections?

Probably not. In races where first-choice votes do not make any candidate mathematically impossible to defeat, elections officials will proceed to the “reallocation” of second- and third-choice votes. This would not begin until Wednesday afternoon and would proceed in the other races that appear on the ballot, with City Council precincts and Park Board seats counted in an order already determined by lottery.

The first order of business is the mayor’s race. Candidates who have no mathematical chance of winning even with second- and third-choice votes will be eliminated, as will the lowest surviving vote-getter. The counting teams will move the second-choice votes from column two to the individual candidates’ spreadsheets, again tallying each.

In this fashion, reallocation can go on for as many rounds as it takes for a single candidate in each race to cross the 50 percent plus one threshold. 

Ramsey County conducts St. Paul reallocations

In St. Paul, the reallocation process is a little different. First, it’s conducted by Ramsey County, which handles the city’s elections. Second, city ordinance there states that if a second or subsequent round is necessary, it must commence on the Monday following the election. The methodology is the same.

But what about recounts? A whole generation has come of voting age since recounts became the norm. And you’re not going to tell me that with 108 candidates no one is going to demand a recount.

Of course we’re not going to tell you that — particularly not when one of the races has 35 candidates, some of who are a tad on the eccentric side. But as in any other race in Minnesota, the law is quite clear who is entitled to an automatic recount.

In races where more than 50,000 ballots are cast, the difference between the top vote-getter and the runner-up must be one-fourth of 1 percent of total votes cast. For races with 400-50,000 votes, it’s half a percent, and for races up to 400 votes a margin of 10.

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Anyone else can attempt to persuade a court of law to get involved. But because ranked-choice voting’s hand-count is similar to a recount, they’re not likely to get much of anywhere.

Hang on —  how about those hanging chads? And all of the other paper ballots we’ve seen teams of lawyers and observers arguing about in recounts here and elsewhere. Do the paper ballots ever get examined?

Yes, a recount would be a full hand count. And in addition to paper ballots there would be time-stamped, read-only CD-ROMs, flash drives and other documentation.

Voter intent

But know this: In an effort to make sure that every ballot stays in play as long as possible if additional rounds of tabulation are required, city officials spent a great deal of time over the last year broadening the rules about voter intent. So in both cities paper ballots with marking errors are carefully reconsidered to see whether their votes can be kept “live.”

I don’t know. Call me cynical, but I guess I don’t completely believe that with this many precincts and races and spreadsheet columns we’re going to know anything anytime soon. It sounds like the whole shebang could come to a halt because of one precinct with long lines or insufficient wi-fi.

In theory, sure. But elections officials have tried their darnedest to anticipate kinks in the system. An election judge hotline will log calls from judges in precincts so trends can be identified and addressed. Precinct support judges will rove from polling place to polling place providing technical support.

They even conducted a mock election Sept. 5-24 at City Hall and four local high schools using the new equipment and procedures. The results were posted to the city’s website.

Will the rapid-response system work? Who could have predicted it would take eight months for Al Franken to be sworn into the U.S. Senate? We could have winners Tuesday night in prime time or we could be waiting until some unknowable future. Many are hopeful that all 22 races will be finished by week’s end.

But there is, we dare venture, another way to think about the possibility that ranked-choice voting could test Twin Citians’ patience. The boosters who worked hard to institute it here hope that it will go some distance toward restoring public engagement in the political process.

If they’re right — something pundits will no doubt opine on the second the results are certified and the rounds of reallocation publicized — candidates will win by appealing not only to their own committed supporters but to those behind their rivals.

Maybe, just maybe, this means they’ll have to talk less about the other gal’s and guy’s weaknesses and more about their own policies. That might just be worth the extra work.