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St. Paul ready to give Ranked Voting its first try

Here's a look at the Ranked Voting ballot to be used in St. Paul's Ward 2.
Here’s a look at the Ranked Voting ballot to be used in St. Paul’s Ward 2.

St. Paul voters will make history in three weeks when they vote for their favorite candidate in the City Council elections.

And some will then vote for their second favorite.

And third. Maybe fourth.

Welcome to Ranked Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, the new way to count ballots that’s coming to the council elections in St. Paul on Nov. 8.

Advocates say it’s a way to ensure more voter participation and eliminate the need for a primary election. It also means that a candidate who wins in each of the city’s seven wards will have a majority of votes cast, unlike what we’ve seen in recent Minnesota gubernatorial elections with third-party candidates.

Minneapolis conducted the state’s first municipal Ranked Voting election in 2009, when city council members and park board members and the Board of Estimate and Taxation were elected in a process that took several weeks to complete.

St. Paul officials promise their election will be decided much more quickly, but it still will be almost a week before all the winners likely are known. That’s because those additional rankings must be calculated by hand and, at this point, certified voting machines that will do that automatically aren’t available.

In Minneapolis, the reallocation was too complex. “They used spreadsheets to determine all the possible combinations for each ballot, and that wasn’t intuitive,” said Ramsey County election chief Joe Mansky, who’s handling the St. Paul election logistics. “It was hard to tell what was going on. We want transparency; people will sit at the tables while it’s happening and see everything that’s going on.”

Election chief Joe Mansky
MinnPost/Joe Kimball
Election chief Joe Mansky

He said: “St. Paul will be faster, simpler, cheaper and more transparent than Minneapolis.”

To be fair, the Minneapolis election was more complex, with more races and at-large seats in some of the races. That meant in many cases each ballot involved several rankings in different kinds of races.

In St. Paul, only the council elections are using the Ranked Voting process this year. (But to further complicate things, there’s a school board election at the same time, which won’t use Ranked Voting but does allow voters to choose up to four candidates. The school board race will be on one side of the paper ballot, and the council race on the other side.)

It turns out, though, that not all St. Paul voters will get the full Ranked Voting experience. In Ward 7, incumbent Kathy Lantry is the only candidate on the ballot; in three other races, there are only two candidates.

In Wards 1 and 3, however, there are four candidates, and in Ward 2, five folks are running. And in every race, there’s a spot on the ballot for write-ins.

Officials in both cities are looking forward — with interest and some trepidation — to 2013, when Minneapolis and St. Paul both will use Ranked Voting in mayoral elections, where there’s a much higher turnout.

And if the two relatively popular incumbents don’t run for re-election, (and I’m betting that at least one, and probably both, won’t) it’s going to be a wild ride, with a slew of candidates running in both cities. There will be crowded ballots and fun “vote reallocation events.” There is a chance, though, that new voting machines that can automatically count and reallocate ballots will be ready by then.

How the system works
Here’s what voters can expect to see under Ranked Voting:

After getting their ballots, St. Paul voters will fill in the oval next to their top choice, as usual. But now voters also have the option of continuing on to select a second choice, and a third choice and maybe more, depending on the number of candidates in the race. In Ward 2, with five people running, a voter could give each a ranking, from first to fifth.

So, soon after the polls close election night, the voting machines will determine if any candidate has received more than half of the votes. If so, that candidate wins and the process is over, just like in the old days. Let the victory party begin. That’ll be the case, barring a tie, in four of the wards.

But, if no one has more than 50 percent of the vote in the other three wards, it’s on to Phase Two: reallocation. And the victory parties are delayed.

In the St. Paul election scenario, reallocation will happen Nov. 14, the Monday after the election and be finished that day, Mansky promises.

The reallocation process was designed by Mansky to be similar to the way Minnesota conducted the two recent statewide ballot recounts — Franken/Coleman and Dayton/Emmer — which local political junkies will remember as the ballots-on-the-table method.

Representatives of each candidate and the media will be there to watch election judges put the actual paper ballots on a table in piles, according to first-choice votes of each candidate. Next, the candidate with the fewest votes in his or her pile will be selected, and those ballots will be reallocated, according to each voter’s second choice.

The piles will be counted again, and if one candidate now has a majority, it’s over. If not, the next-smallest pile is reallocated. The process continues until only two piles are left, and then the candidate with the most votes wins.

OK — maybe it does sounds sort of confusing.

That’s why election officials and the nonprofit group FairVote Minnesota have spent the past weeks explaining the process to anyone who will listen. There are even newspaper ads and signs on buses and bus stops outlining the steps.

Demo election: Brownies win
One of the favorite tools at voter education presentations is the demo election, using popular items like beer or desserts, said Brian Kimmes of FairVote Minnesota.

For example, let’s say 20 people are trying to decide what dessert to order. The choices: lemon bars, banana split, brownies or chocolate chip cookies. We want a true majority, meaning at least 11 people have to be on the same page, or plate, so we’ll use Ranked Voting to decide.

Everyone gets a ballot and determines their first, second, third and fourth choices.

In the first count:
•    Brownies, 8
•    Banana Split, 6
•    Cookies, 4
•    Lemon Bars, 2

No one has 11, so the lemon bars, having the fewest votes, are out, and the second choice on those two ballots are reallocated. Both have brownies as second choice, so the ranking is now:
•    Brownies, 10
•    Banana Split, 6
•    Cookies, 4

So now the cookies are history, and the next choice on those ballots breaks down two for Banana Split and one for brownies and one for cookies. But cookies are already out, so on that ballot they’ll go to the next choice: brownies.
The last, and final tally:
•    Brownies, 12
•    Banana Split, 8

Brownies win, with a majority. And at our house, they’ll soon be history, too.

The new direction
Minnesota is on the cutting edge of Ranked Voting but isn’t the first, said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota.

At least a dozen cities in the country use it, and another dozen more will have it in the near future, she said. It’s already used in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, among others.

It’s also used in Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Fiji, Sri Lanka and for mayoral elections in London.

And it’s used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science — the Oscar people — to determine Best Picture.

Duluth, Red Wing and Bloomington also are looking at it, and a bill introduced in the Legislature would give the option to other cities and jurisdictions in the state.

“When used, it ensures better voter participation and eliminates the two-round process [primary elections here, run-off elections in other places] where the candidates with more money fare better,” Massey said.

And she said wider use of Ranked Voting might be a way to mitigate the dysfunction that now seems to pervade partisan politics, because candidates would have to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate.

“It requires candidates and parties to reach beyond their base and work to get a majority of the vote. I think we would see a decrease in some of the negativity,” she said.

Advocates say, too, that eventually Ranked Voting also will be cheaper than the old method because it eliminates the need for costly primaries that often get a tiny turnout. And when new voting machines that can do the reallocations automatically — now in the works — are purchased to replace the existing aging machines, the cost of the hand-counting reallocation process will go away, too. In these first years, though, the cities are spending some, or all, of the savings on voter education.

St. Paul needed petition drive to force vote
While Ranked Voting was embraced fairly early on by the Minneapolis City Council, the St. Paul council members were reluctant to get involved. As a result, in St. Paul the process had to go through a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot, and voters approved it.

Council Member Dave Thune, the incumbent in Ward 2, wasn’t in favor of Ranked Voting, but now that it’s here, he said, he’s curious how it will work.

Said Thune, who’s been on the council 16 of the past 20 years: “I want to make it work.”

He said he’s noticed, though, that while campaigning that some voters appear confused.

“When they see the sample ballot with all the names listed so many times, there seems to be some angst,” he said. “Some have asked, ‘Should I vote for you first and then someone else second?’ We tell them, ‘Just vote for Dave.’ We’re not talking at all about second and third choices.

“I’m actually curious about how it will work, but I’m not campaigning against Ranked Voting, I’m campaigning for the office. I want to make sure everyone knows that it’s really very simple: If they want to vote for just one person, they certainly can.”

Thune’s race is one that likely won’t be decided until the Nov. 14 reallocation process.

A big down side of that, he said: The candidate’s election night gatherings “could be really boring parties.”

To learn more
Those wanting more information can attend these events:

• Monday nights, Oct. 17, 24 and 31, a demonstration election at the Vine Park Brewery n St. Paul at 7:30 p.m. Instead of practice voting on desserts, participants will practice vote on beer choices.

• Oct. 20, 5:30 p.m., at the Plug In gathering at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Paul.

• Oct. 22, 9:30 a.m. at the Hmong Community Forum, Hmong Village, 1001 Johnson Parkway, St. Paul.

• Nov. 1, noon, Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota, 553 N. Fairview Ave., St. Paul.

The Ramsey County elections office has YouTube videos explaining the concept and execution on its website.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/17/2011 - 10:07 am.

    Correction: ranked voting is actually not used in Aspen. It was used for one election and then was repealed.

    Burlington, Vermont and Pierce County (Tacoma) Washington also repealed ranked voting after using it briefly. Someday I would like to see an article on ranked voting discuss what went wrong and why people turned on ranked voting in these places instead of just relying on FairVote press releases.

  2. Submitted by Don Effenberger on 10/17/2011 - 10:28 am.

    We’e dropped Aspen from the list of cities using Ranked Voting.

  3. Submitted by Kelly O'Brien on 10/17/2011 - 11:41 am.

    I’m a Minneapolis voter and I can tell you that Ranked Choice Voting is easy. Don’t over think it when you vote in St. Paul–just vote your heart’s desire, 1st, 2nd, 3rd.

    My dream is that after Minneapolis and St. Paul show the rest of the state that RCV works, we can adopt it statewide and stop electing governors with less than 50% voter support.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/17/2011 - 12:11 pm.

    This is stupid for a city election. Most people in this town don’t even have a first choice, much less a second or third choice.

  5. Submitted by Rob Richie on 10/17/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    Thanks for covering ranked choice voting! A key part of the St. Paul election – -and one that already saved the city from the need for low-turnout primaries, allowing all choices on the November ballot.

    A couple things:

    1. Backers of David Thune will want to rank him first, but it’s sensible for all voters to rank other qualified candidates behind their first choice. Those lower choices only come into play if your first choice has been defeated by trailing the field. Thune might not think that will happen to him, but you never know – -and asking supporter to “bullet vote” only for you has only one possible impact: leading their ballot not to count for their next choice in the event he loses.

    2. One comment addresses where ranked voting has been adopted. There’s a good list and history at and

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/17/2011 - 03:43 pm.

    Rob (#5) your IRV “factcheck” reminds me a lot of the “fair and balanced” reporting from Fox News. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you neglected to mention that you are the longtime director of FairVote. And thanks for weighing in on the Ward 2 race in St. Paul. We in St. Paul appreciate when people who don’t even live in Minnesota weigh in our our city council races.

    Here is a link that discusses the biggest flaw with ranked voting (after extra cost, delay and confusion):

    Although Mr. Richie doesn’t understand it (or doesn’t care) this is one of the reasons ranked voting was such a disaster in Burlington Vermont, and why it was repealed.

  7. Submitted by Rob Richie on 10/17/2011 - 07:17 pm.

    Nice to meet you, Dan.

    1) You express concern about nonmonotonicity, but the system that St. Paul replaced with RCV has the exact same property.

    2) As as the Ward 2 race, it was a generic point. Lower choices don’t count against first choices.

    3) Burlington’s repeal was much a proxy for a recall of an unpopular mayor, the only candidate who had won with RCV. The repeal was actively opposed by the League of Women Voters, former governor Howard Dean, Sen. Bernie Sanders and nearly every elected official in the city. It also was opposed in five of the city’s seven wards.

    Meantime, RCV’s being used in many other places — having a fascinating election for president of Ireland with it right now, for example, and for upcoming mayoral elections in San Francisco (CA), Telluride (CO) and Portland (ME).

  8. Submitted by Tom Johnson on 10/17/2011 - 11:01 pm.

    Dan, so for every disastrous experience one place has had with ranked choice voting, in how many places has the use of it been going smoothly for many years?

    Could it be maybe it’s not inherently disastrous but just wasn’t implemented properly in Vermont (assuming it wasn’t intentionally derailed by political forces whom the old method favored)?

    To anyone who’s interested, an extensive list can be found if you Google “Where Instant Runoff is used”; RCV is also known as IRV.

    RCV’s not perfect; no voting method is. But some are more imperfect than others. Critics of RCV are more credible to the extent they acknowledge what is appealing about it–and what is unappealing about the standard plurality system.

  9. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 10/18/2011 - 12:53 am.

    Ranked choice voting is a fraud in that in allows some people to – in effect – vote twice or more. If one votes for the candidate who receives a plurality your vote stays with that candidate. Other voters, those who voted for second or third tier candidates that are eliminated, are then allowed to vote for a different candidate.

    Ranked choice voting also presumes – when no candidate receives a simple majority in the initial count – that a voters 2nd, 3rd, 4th choice candidates have the same level of preference as the 1st choice. In fact, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th candidates are clearly not the ones that were preferred. Those 2nd, 3rd, 4th choices get counted in subsequent tallies with exactly the same weight as 1st choice.

    Ranked choice voting credibility will be severely tested when a candidate who receives for example, 40% in the initial count but is defeated by a candidate who finishes a distant second or third in the initial count because he/she fails to acquire enough 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th choice “votes”.

  10. Submitted by Chuck Repke on 10/18/2011 - 10:04 am.

    I have to agree with Dan’s first comments, it is so frustrating that every story ever written on RCV/IRV always has the Pro spin to it and a paid group of “experts” from Fairvote given great credibility.

    Nowhere in this story did it mention that, yes Minneapolis had their first try at it two years ago and it resulted in the LOWEST turn out in that city ever. Instead, it just claims that in 2013 it will bring a high turn out. The facts are that the confusing system turns off people from voting and has resulted in some of the lowest turn out races in city after city.

    Massey is quoted as an expert after she headed up the campaign that was fined the maximum $5,000 for deliberately distributing false campaign information in the 2009 ballot effort to get this approved. The statements she swore to in court were found to be “not credible” by the three judge pannel.

    Yet, she is an expert and quotable… its amazing.

  11. Submitted by Paul Bramscher on 10/18/2011 - 10:05 am.

    IRV has gotten quite a bit of support, but it’s a shame that Range Voting never caught on. The Range Vote is essentially the system used at the Olympics, most every other contest, scientific studies, etc. For example, for each candidate, give them a point score 0-10. This allows you better granularity, ties in preference, and leaving someone you REALLY don’t like 0 points (the default).

    Some people have argued that this is too complex for the average moron, but the last time I did my taxes — which are required and not optional — this is extremely easy, whether IRV or Range, etc.

  12. Submitted by Dann Dobson on 10/18/2011 - 10:14 am.

    Dan Hintz thank you for all your great comments! Yes, Dan is correct, FairVote Minnesota lied about who supported their St.Paul initiative claiming that the State DFL, Barack Obama, John McCain and Ralph Nader all supported the St. Paul Campaign, when in fact none did. I was one of the complainants and a 3 Judge panel ruled in our favor and fined FairVote $5,000.

    Rob Ritchie claims that IRV or RCV runs smoothly. but this is not the case as pointed out, in Burlington, Vermont Bob Kiss, the second place finisher in the first round, eventually beat the first round winner. Burlington voters were so disgusted with how IRV worked, they repealed it in the next election.

    In San Francisco in their Supervisors race in Ward 10 in 2010, there were 17 people on the ballot. The eventual winner Malia Cohen was not the first round winner, but came “from behind” to win in the 16th round of counting.

    It is estimated that there may be as many as 15 people on the ballot for Mayor of San Francisco in the next Mayoral election.

    See this article about mounting complaints about IRV in California.

  13. Submitted by Dann Dobson on 10/18/2011 - 10:25 am.

    Sorry, but I also failed to add this information. The St. Paul City Council results will NOT be totally transparent as Joe Mansky, the head of Ramsey County Board of Elections claims.

    The tallying of votes will only go so far, until a majority winner is determined, and then all counting will stop.

    So for example in Ward Three where John Mannillo, Chris Tolbert, Eve Stein and Bryan Slinger are all running, if Mannillo or Tolbert win a majority election night, one of them will be declared the winner and we will never know how Eve Stein’s and Bryan Slingers supporters would have voted in a 2nd and 3rd round.

    When Chuck Repke and I asked if people will be allowed to inspect the ballots afterwards, to determine voters 2nd and 3rd choices, we were told that all ballots would be forever sealed and no inspection would be permitted.

    So the line that IRV is totally transparent is false, at least in St. Paul.

  14. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 10/18/2011 - 10:34 am.

    Thanks for this discussion. I’m a long-time ranked choice voting advocate (from back when it was still called instant runoff)and am glad it’s getting a chance in St Paul.

    Comment 1: Dave Thune’s strategy shows one of the benefits of RCV — it requires candidates to campaign differently. If a candidate is pretty sure that he or she commands a majority of firct choices, the advice to his supporters to ignore second and third choices is innocuous: the majority of first choice votes decides the election and subsequent choices are not necessary to determine the majority’s preference.

    But if it were a close three or four candidate race in which none are assured of a majority of first choices, then each candidates has to take the other candidates’ supporters more seriously in order to win if a second round of counting is necessary. The either-or, polarizing campaign tactics we have today will have to change — for the better, I think — if multiple parties grow in strength and have to form genuine coalitions with other minority parties instead of peeling off a slim plurality of true believers. (Are you listening Tim Pawlenty and Jesse Ventura?)

    Second comments: Commentator Bernstein says that RCV lets some people vote twice. He’s right, but only in the same sense that having a primary election lets some people vote twice.

    E.g., Imagine A, B, and C are running in a non-partisian primary, with the top two going to the general election. If I vote for A, but A comes in third, then I get to vote in the general election for B or C (if I want to), while all of B’s and C’s supporters get to vote for B and C again, too. Am I getting two votes?

    This is all that RCV does — it should be thought of as a series of primary elections conducted until a candidate gets a majority. The only difference is that the voting happens all at once and presents a more accurate of the voters’ preferences on election day without the uncertainties presented by holding a second election.

    Comment 3: While I strongly support RCV, the arguments against it are serious but are seldom voiced. The most serious is that the two-party system is superior to a multi-party system, at least given the separation of executive and legislative power that we have in the US. I’d like to see that argument engaged and debated rather than the specious legal arguments (constitutional and statutory) that most anti-RCV advocates keep making.

  15. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/18/2011 - 12:04 pm.

    Paul (#14), your argument in Comment 3 is a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who is arguing that the alleged superiority of the two-party system as a basis for opposing ranked choice voting. The arguments that you write off as specious – that ranked voting is more expensive, takes longer, confuses people, does not achieve the claimed goals of cleaner politics and consensus results, and suffers from a fundamental mathematical flaw – are hardly that.

    The biggest problem with ranked choice voting is that of nonmonotonicity. What that means is that in the course of a the reallocation process, ranked choice can favor candidates with less support over candidates with more support. Its difficult to explain (see the link below) and the Fairvote people use that fact to gloss over the flaw in their system. Essentially, any fair voting system should base the winner on the candidate with the most support, and ranked choice voting doesn’t always do that.

    You see in my exchange above with Rob Richie, the head of FairVote, above that he acknowledges that ranked choice suffers from nonmonotonicity, but then claims that St. Paul’s prior system had the exact same property. That claim by Richie is 100 percent false. The system we had was first past the post, which does not suffer from nonmonotonicity. You are claiming the anti ranked choice arguments are specious, but the head of FairVote is on record here making arguments that are flat out false.

  16. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/18/2011 - 02:31 pm.

    Tom (#8) to answer your first question, ranked voting can produce “smooth” elections where the outcome is no different than under standard first-past-the-post voting. The Minneapolis elections were smooth (with the exception of the extra cost and counting delays) because ranked voting did not effect the outcome.

    The trouble comes when ranked voting produces a different result than traditional voting would – when a candidate “comes from behind” to win after the first round of counting. Ranked choice advocates would tell you that because their system is better because it produces a majority winner, rather than an unsatisfying plurality winner. The reality is that what actually happens when the ranked winner is not the first-past-the-post winner is that people feel they got screwed. Ranked choice voting brings out less confidence in elections, not more.

    Rob (#8) argues that the Burlington repeal was a backlash against an unpopular mayor, and to some extent he is right. Part of the reason the mayor was unpopular is that he didn’t win the election, or at least would not have won the election based on who the voters picked. It was only ranked choice and the re-allocation of votes that made him the “winner”, and voters did not see him as legitimate. For all the talk of creating a majority winner, the mayor didn’t even get that with the ranked choice system in place.

  17. Submitted by Tom Johnson on 10/18/2011 - 10:06 pm.

    Dan, do you recognize anything that is appealing about ranked choice voting versus plurality voting?

  18. Submitted by Rob Richie on 10/18/2011 - 10:16 pm.

    #15 — Dan, St. Paul’s system previously was a two-round system, reducing the field two two with a primary, followed by a top-two general election. A “first past the post” election would be a single round of voting where the candidate with the most votes would be elected. A top-two runoff system is also nonmonotonic. But I’d take any runoff system (delayed runoff or instant runoff) over plurality voting in a heartbeat.

    Note that RCV is widely used. One example is the presidential election in Ireland, which will take place next week. In the 1990 election for president there, a candidate trailed in first choices, but won in the final round, which simply meant that Mary Robinson was backed by more voters than her top opponent.

  19. Submitted by Chuck Repke on 10/19/2011 - 04:20 pm.

    I just wanted to comment on Paul and Rob’s comments concerning Thune’s comments in Ward 2. Dave didn’t say that he was telling everyone not to make a second choice… it clearly says:

    “He said he’s noticed, though, that while campaigning that some voters appear confused.

    “When they see the sample ballot with all the names listed so many times, there seems to be some angst,” he said. “Some have asked, ‘Should I vote for you first and then someone else second?’ We tell them, ‘Just vote for Dave.’ We’re not talking at all about second and third choices.”

    He is talking about when “voters appear confused.” As is likely the case in this insane system, some people don’t get it and will never get it… so at some point the candidate has to stop trying to explain the insanity and say… just vote for me.

    I noticed the Green Party candidate in Ward 2 is now attacking Thune over this partial quote. Claiming that Thune doesn’t want them to make more than one choice. Typical of the advocates of this system….

  20. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/23/2011 - 04:58 pm.

    Tom (#17) the claimed benefits of ranked choice are certainly appealing. The problem is those claimed benefits don’t hold up in the real world. So if the decision is going to be made on facts and not false claims, the answer to your question is no.

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