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IRV offers new strategies for Minneapolis candidates

Brandt Williams // Published October 16, 2009 in MPR News
Minneapolis - Minneapolis officials say voters won't notice a big difference when the city begins using Instant Runoff Voting on Nov. 3, but candidates and their supporters already are.

For the first time in the city's history, Minneapolis will use IRV on Nov. 3, also called ranked choice voting, the system allows people to select a first, second and third choice for office.

Earlier this week, more than 120 people showed up at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis for a 5th Ward candidate forum. As in several other city council races, the incumbent - in this case, Don Samuels - is facing several opponents.

Under the old voting system, Samuels, if he made it through the primary, would face one challenger. But, under Instant Runoff Voting, a primary is not necessary. So now Samuels is on stage with four opponents.

The forum's moderator, Keesha Gaskins, asked the candidates about the new voting system.

"Assuming you want voters to rank you as their first choice, who would you recommend as their second choice? We'll start with Mr. Samuels," Gaskins said.

"That would be self-defeating for me to do that," Samuels responded.

It might sound that way, but experts say Samuels and other incumbents tend to do just as well under ranked choice voting than they do under the traditional system. That's because generally, elected officials already have the advantage of name recognition.

When asked the same question, 5th Ward candidates Roger Smithrud, Lennie Chism and Kenya McKnight also declined to offer a second choice recommendation. But Natalie Johnson Lee, a former city council member who is also considered Samuels' strongest opponent, was willing to name another candidate.

"I would recommend Kenya," Lee said.

That's where ranked choice voting can even the stakes between a David and a Goliath. Jeanne Massey is the executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota, which pushed for IRV.

Massey said voters do not have to make a second choice. But if Johnson Lee and other candidates encourage their supporters to pick other challengers as second and third choices on their ballots, they can create a coalition of opposition.

"And the question to ask is: Is that opposition against Don 50 percent or greater? Or is Don's support 50 percent or greater?" Massey said.

If no candidate gets greater than 50 percent of the first choice votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. But people who voted for the first round loser still have a vote - provided they made a second choice. Their second choice candidate then gets their vote. The process is repeated until a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

Massey said she doesn't expect the 11-person mayor's race to go past the first round. She said Mayor R.T. Rybak's challengers lack the resources to put up a strong fight. But Massey said the three open council races will be interesting to watch, as well as the contests for the park board.

In some cases minor party or unendorsed candidates are actually campaigning together against an incumbent. That's happening in the 6th Ward, where three people have joined forces to defeat council member Robert Lilligren.

Laura Jean, Andy Exley and Michael Tupper have listed different party affiliations in their campaign registration paperwork. But Jean said they're working together for one goal.

"If you can convince people to vote for these three candidates, that aren't the incumbent, then you have a better shot of getting someone new in," Jean said.

Jean said when the candidates campaign together each candidate still tries to convince voters to make them the voters' first choice. But she said they do so without slinging mud at each other, and she said people are pleasantly surprised by their approach.

Ranked choice voting will also add a new twist to the at-large Park Board commissioner race, where eight people are running for three seats. Voters will be able to rank three choices for each seat.

If it hurts your brain to imagine how the runoff process applies to this race, have no fear. The city's interim elections director, Pat O'Connor, said a computer program will help with the calculations.

"Every combination of first, second and third choice will be counted and put onto a summary sheet," O'Connor said. "Then that summary information will be loaded into an Excel program. And that Excel program -- off-the-shelf stuff, there's no rocket science to it - will do the round calculations for us."

All this means that it will take a little longer to produce official results. O'Connor said the ballot machines will provide preliminary results the night of the election. But, because the machines are not certified to handle a ranked choice election, the final counts will be done by hand. That process is expected to take several weeks.