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Minneapolis makes way for new voting system: For the first time, residents will vote for city positions using ranked-choice voting this fall.

// Published June 16, 2009 in University of Minnesota Daily

All eyes will be on Minneapolis this fall as it implements a new voting system ­ a switch almost three years in the making.

In the Nov. 3 elections for city council, mayor and several city boards, Minneapolis residents will take their first run at ranked-choice voting, a process that allows voters to rank candidates by preference and eliminates a primary.

Friday was the last day the City Council could opt to switch back to a traditional voting system.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank candidates for a seat in order of first, second and third preference, eliminating a primary election. In counting the ballots ­ most of which will have to be done by hand ­ the top-ranked candidates are tallied first.

If a candidate receives a majority of the votes in the first round, they are elected. If there is no clear winner, the last-place candidate’s votes are distributed out to the voters’ second choices and the ballots are tallied again. This is repeated until a single candidate breaches the threshold.

The city’s voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting in a 2006 referendum.

However, in the long, tedious road to implementing the process, opposition to the switch emerged, pulling the issue all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court sided in favor of ranked-choice voting in an expedited ruling released Thursday, rejecting an appeal brought by the Minnesota Voters Alliance claiming the process violates the one person, one vote standard. This ruling affirmed one from the Hennepin County District Court in January that also sided with the city.

The Alliance argues that ranked-choice voting infringes on an individual’s right to vote, due process and right of association.

Andy Cilek , executive director of the Alliance, said that eliminating the September primary also cuts out opportunity for serious debate.

“In Minneapolis they average 22 to 25 candidates for mayor in a primary,” he said. “If you put those two elections together into one, how do you even have a debate?”

Despite being turned down by the Minnesota Supreme Court, Cilek has plans to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But advocates of the process say ranked-choice voting increases voter choice, participation and could save the city some much needed cash.

“It’s very difficult to get voters out to the polls twice,” Jeanne Massey, director of FairVote Minnesota said, adding that the number of voters showing up to the primary election is significantly less than to the general election.

“In a primary you have a small number of voters prematurely winnowing out the field of candidates for the general election,” she said. “With ranked-choice voting we have the maximum number of voters choosing among the greatest number of candidates.”

The city spends an average of $200,000 setting up the primary election, Massey said. That will be saved with ranked-choice voting.

Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said that ranked-choice voting also increases chances for third party candidates.

“The usual argument for a third party candidate is that you are wasting your vote,” Jacobs said. “Let’s say in the last election you really wanted Dean Barkley to win, but your biggest fear was that Norm Coleman would be re-elected so you voted for Al Franken, even if he wasn’t your favorite candidate.”

A mock election

In May, Minneapolis election officials revealed the results of a 600-ballot test run of ranked-choice voting that election officials say prove the city has a solid plan in place.

The purpose of the trial was to test the ballot designed by the city, train election officials and set up practices for hand counting.

While the city has machines that are able to count first preferences during the initial round, most of the votes will have to be tallied by hand, a process that could take until at least Thanksgiving for close races.

This is because, on closely contested races, voter’s second or possibly third preferences would need to be tallied by hand, Ginny Gelms, an election technician with the city, said.

Jacobs said the length of the process is something that Minnesotans will need to be aware of before heading to the polls.

“I don’t know if Minnesotans have any kind of appetite for delays right now,” he said.

This also concerns City Council President Barbara Johnson who , at Friday’s city council meeting, spoke against a motion to not hold a primary this fall.

“The mathematics involved are really complex and require extensive counting,” she said, adding that she was worried there was not enough time to do voter education before Election Day.

History of ranked-choice voting

While the state’s Supreme Court ruled the voting system constitutional this time around, it didn’t think so in a 1915 case in Duluth, Minn., when the court struck down another alternative voting system that also asked voters to rank candidates. However, the Duluth and Minneapolis systems have different methods of counting votes.

But the idea has spread elsewhere in the United States recently. Last fall, four single-seat local contests in San Francisco required counts that went into several rounds, as well as in eight single-seat races in Pierce County, Wash.

‘Triggering effect’ in Minnesota

While Minneapolis is the only city in Minnesota that has elected to use the system so far, others are waiting to see how things go this fall.

“It’s already prompting other cities in Minnesota to get to it,” Jacobs said. “It has had kind of a triggering effect ... Minneapolis gets a lot of credit for plowing ahead.”

St. Paul and Duluth are two other cities that have shown a strong interest in the voting method and may move ahead quickly following this fall’s election, Jacobs said. But for some, the possibilities don’t stop with city elections.

“Once it’s demonstrated in this year’s elections, we believe that it will be time for state offices to use this,” Massey of FairVote said. “It puts power in the hands of the voters, where it belongs, and I don’t think it will take long for that idea to catch on.”