This coverage is made possible by a grant from The Saint Paul Foundation.

Some getting cold feet over proposed Minneapolis ranked-choice changes

Several Minneapolis City Councilmembers are questioning the ethics of candidates making changes to the election laws.

Changes to election laws are almost always explained by saying the new rules will give voters more opportunities to participate.

The flip side of the new rules, especially those made by a group of candidates during an election year, might be seen as giving those running for office a few extra opportunities of their own.

That’s the crux of the discussion involving the Minneapolis City Council, where some of the members want to give voters the chance to rank more than three candidates for each office in the fall election.

And several council members are questioning the ethics of candidates making changes to the election laws.

“I think it’s almost to the point of making me feel uncomfortable, and it’s distasteful that we are voting on a ballot we are going to be on,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman at Thursday’s meeting.

She made her comment after hearing from a nationally recognized elections expert — and after listening to colleagues discuss the possibility of expanding the ranked-choice voting options from three choices to six or more.

“It’s crazy to think that people are sitting here and not thinking, ‘Oh, how will this affect me,’ ” said Goodman, who wants the council to vote on the matter and end the discussion this week, instead of keeping the matter before them until mid-June.

“Too many people are thinking how it will affect them,” she said. “I’m just saying it out loud.”

“I’m in total agreement with what she just said,” added Council Member Meg Tuthill. “The timing scares me half to death, and ethically I have some major issues with this.”

“We’ve only done this once before [ranked-choice voting] and I don’t believe the kinks are worked out yet,” Tuthill added with a reference to the 2009 election, the only time Minneapolis voters have cast ranked-choice ballots. “I think we need to give it a few elections to really zero in on what needs to be done.”

“It’s time to vote,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy. “Making a change of this magnitude in an election we are all going to participate in seems wrong.”

Following Thursday’s meeting, Elections Committee Chair Cam Gordon said the council could go ahead and vote Friday on election law changes presented to them Monday but leave open the question of how many rankings would be on the ballot. Or vote on the entire package and end the debate.

Earlier this week, Grace Wachiarowicz, director of elections, outlined three changes to the elections ordinance that would:

• Require write-in candidates to file with the Elections Office if they wanted their votes tallied.

•  Allow reporting of winners on Election Night if they received the number of first-choice votes needed to make winning impossible for another  candidate in the race.

• And clarifying the system for determining voter intent on ballots with marking errors.

At Monday’s meeting, there was discussion about expanding the ranking opportunity from three choices, possibly to five, six or more.

Staff was asked to come back and talk about the possibilities.

“In a race with a large number of candidates, that has a very small margin of votes between the candidates, it’s obvious the additional ranking might be useful to determine a winner,” said Connie Schmidt, a nationally recognized elections adviser working with the city clerk’s Elections staff.

But there are some problems.

This fall, Minneapolis voters will be using new Hennepin County voting equipment and new software and the final contract to purchase those items has yet to be signed. The software has not yet been tested.

A sample ballot with a horizontal grid was displayed as a possibility for allowing voters many rankings but the horizontal ballot cannot be used in accessible voting booths.

The horizontal grid presents another problem for Minneapolis, the only city in Hennepin County that will use ranked-choice voting this fall.

The vendor of the voting equipment does not recommend mixing horizontal and vertical ballots on the same Election Day.

“The vendor’s exact words, and I wrote them down,” said Schmidt, is “ ‘This is not a sound solution at this time.’  For me, that meant we do not want to try it.”

Still, there were questions about ranked choice in California, Portland, Burlington, Cambridge and St. Paul.

St. Paul will be using ranked choice with six rankings this fall, but its ballot will have only the citywide mayor’s race and a Ward 1 council vacancy to fill.

With the current number of announced mayoral candidates, eight at last count, it would be possible to create a vertical ballot that would allow voters to rank up to six of those candidates, according to Wachlarowicz.

But that could also require a ballot that goes past one sheet of paper.

“Multiple-page ballots nationally are known to introduce what we call voter drop-off,” said Schmidt. “Some voters will not continue voting past Page One.”

They also can create long lines at the polls – outside, waiting to vote, and inside, waiting for the scanner. Multi-page ballots also increase the cost of mailing to absentee voters.

City Clerk Casey Carl is scheduled to begin voter outreach and education by June 12 and wants to be able to hand new voters a sample ballot.

“I get very nervous when I even think about the fact that the November election is five months away,” said Schmidt. “In the world of elections, that’s not a lot of time.”

The goal is to avoid a ballot that requires hand-counting, which election officials say would be time-consuming and costly.

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