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.”
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.