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Tweaking ranked-choice voting: Minneapolis considering three changes

One proposed change would try to speed up reporting of Election Night results. 

A study of 2009 ranked-choice voting found that the biggest complaint about the process was the lengthy delay in knowing who the winners were on Election Night.
MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

Members of the Minneapolis City Council got scolded by a member of the Charter Commission as they prepared to change some of the rules on how ranked-choice voting will be administered in this fall’s election.

“I would submit that 13 declared candidates for office, in an election year, five months prior to an election, have no business changing election laws,” said Devin Rice of the Charter Commission.

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He also was critical of an earlier council decision to reduce funds available for voter education, given the incidence of voter error in the 2009 election.

That was the last time — and the first time — Minneapolis voters selected office holders by ranking their top three choices (PDF).

Errors in using ranked-choice voting showed up on 6.5 percent of ballots cast, Rice said.

“There is no question that the data that was published, and still resides on your website, identifies a dramatic increase in error in low-income, high-minority precincts than in white, affluent precincts,” he said.

Three ‘enhancements’ under review

Council members met Monday as the Election Committee to consider three “enhancements” (PDF) to city election rules (PDF) that involve:

• Determining voter intent when a ballot has been wrongly marked.

• Reporting results on Election Night.

• And implementing a new rule that would require write-in candidates to register with the city elections clerk.

The study of 2009 ranked-choice voting — by Hamline University professor David Schultz and then-Hamline student Kristi Rendahl — found that the biggest complaint about the process was the lengthy delay in knowing who the winners were on Election Night.

The study also noted that the low turnout (21 percent) might have made it a bad year to evaluate the new voting system.

“We had almost 10 percent of the ballots in that election that were incorrectly completed,” said Schultz. Of the 45,968 ballots cast in 2009, 1,888 were spoiled and 2,958 contained voter errors specific to ranked-choice voting.

“The worst-case scenario you get is you go into this election where it could be very close — a 3 or 4 or 5 percent error could be enough to affect the outcome,” said Schultz, looking at a mayoral race with seven candidates. “It could be the recipe for litigation.”

Complaints about slow counting

One problem that could be solved in this year’s elections is the ability to report winners in some of the races on Election Night.

In 2009, some candidates had to wait weeks for the ballots to be hand-counted.

City Council President Barb Johnson, for example, knew she had 47 percent of the vote on Election Night but waited three weeks to be declared the winner.

This year, the new Maximum Possible Threshold will determine the number of votes a candidate needs to be declared a winner, based on first-choice votes cast. That number will be based on ballots cast.

The old system — and the one currently used by St. Paul — based the threshold on votes (rather than ballots) cast (PDF) — which requires a complete counting and slows the reporting of winners.

In 2009, for example, even though Mayor R.T. Rybak had 73 percent of ballots cast, he could not be declared the winner until all of the ranked votes were counted.

“We should be able to process and declare winners where there are definitive winners,” said City Clerk Casey Carl, addressing the concern by some council members that vote counting would come to a halt once a candidate had reached the Maximum Possible Threshold and be declared the winner.

 “We can certainly go back and find statistical data that completes the calculations for each candidate,” he said.

“The first goal of this change was to declare as many races as possible on Election Night,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy. “That will make people happy.”

In 2009, if a voter ranked too many candidates for an office — a situation called an “over-vote” — the ballot would have been rejected by the voting machine and the voter given a chance to recast the ballot.

New voting machines

This year, with new voting machines from Hennepin County, the ballot also would be rejected, but the voter could turn down the option to vote again.

In that case, assume the voter selected two first-choice candidates, those selections would be voided and the second-choice candidate would become the first choice. But over-voting is the only error the machines will reject.

This year, a voter who votes for the same candidate for all three choices, called repeat candidate voting, will give that candidate one first-choice vote but will not have the second and third choices counted.

This voting practice will not be detected by the voting machines and the voter will not have a chance to correct or change his or her ballot. This is unchanged from 2009.

Another practice, called skipped ranking, also will not be detected by the voting machines, so voters will not be have a chance to correct their ballot. In skipped ranking, for example, the voter could make a first choice but leave the second choice blank and then fill in a third choice. The first choice would be counted, but the third choice would move up to second choice in the counting.

In 2009, a skipped-ranking voter who made only a third-place choice in a contest would not have the vote counted at all. In 2013, such a voter would have that third choice counted as a first choice.

“It’s about voter education,” said Terra Cole, executive director for the Heritage Park Neighborhood Association in the 5th Ward, which had the highest number of voter errors in the 2009 election. “We tend to have a lot of folks who are voting for the first time or moving from other places. It’s a transient neighborhood.”

She used the example of explaining ranked-choice voting to her mother, who has a Ph.D., by equating the process to filling out your meal preference for a party or a conference: Do you want the beef, the chicken or the vegetable?

“When we educate our community of color about how to vote, it’s very easy,” said Cole, adding that potential voters in her community expect to rank more than three candidates because there will be more than three candidates in some races.

“There is no evidence that more rankings have imposed any greater difficulty,” said Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, a leading advocate for ranked-choice voting.

She told council members that in 2009, Portland, Ore., found that half of the voters ranked more than three candidates. “The easy instruction is to rank as far as you can and stop ranking.”

Council members expressed interest in expanding the rankings for the 2013 election to as many as five or six choices but decided to study the possibility until Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

New rule proposed for write-ins

The final change approved by the Committee would require write-in candidates to register with the city elections clerk at least seven days before the election if they want their votes counted and recorded.

In 2009, 3,221 write-in votes were cast, and each had to be hand-counted.

The registration requirement will still allow voters to cast their ballot for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, but there will be no count beyond the total number of write-in votes for non-registered write-ins.

It’s estimated that this change would cut the time required to count write-ins by 60 to 75 percent.

The changes, approved by the Committee, and the possibility of expanding the choices beyond the current three, will be discussed Thursday session, with a vote expected at Friday’s City Council meeting.