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New Instant-Runoff Voting Could Factor in 22 Minneapolis Races

Chris Steller // Published July 22, 2009 in The Minnesota Independent
A flurry of campaign filings on deadline day increased Minneapolis' candidate pool by a third and brought to 22 the number of races that could be decided by the city's new system of instant-runoff voting (IRV). 

Of 98 candidates who filed to run for city offices from mayor to park commissioner, 26 signed up Tuesday, the final day to file.

Those last-minute candidates included John Malone, the lead individual plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop Minneapolis from using IRV for the first time in November's municipal elections.  The Minnesota Supreme Court decided last month to rejct that effort and let the city proceed with the IRV system, also known as ranked-choice voting.

Ironically, Malone's entry as third candidate in the race for District 1 park commissioner opens that contest to potentially being decided by the very counting process he opposed in court.

In an elecion in which three or more candidates vie for a single seat, the leading vote-getter may be favored on fewer than half the ballots.  Under the old system, the leader would win with a plurality.  This year, under IRV, that istuation would trigger a second round of counting in which voters' second-choice preferences enter the tally.

(Minneapolis voters opted for the new system by referendum, a choice St. Paul voters will make with their own referendum this fall.  IRV means Minneapolis won't hold a primary election as it has in the past.

Malone says he didn't become a candidate to start another scrap over IRV.  "I'm no fan of ranked voting," said Malone, who contends the system "disenfranchises voters."  But with the lawsuit now settled, he told the Minnesota Independent, "there's no use crying over spilled milk."

A Case Built on Math

But to Andy Cliek, Malone's former co-worker who recruited him to join the suit, the fight goes on.

"We're already getting ready [for new legal action]," says Cliek, executive director of Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA), the organization that took Minneapolis to court over IRV.  "We want to drive this to the federal courts."

It wasn't part of MVA's strategy to have an anti-IRV candidate run for office in MInneapolis this year, said Cliek, who expressed surprise at hearing of Malone's candidacy.  "I wish him luck," he said.

Rather than an aggrieved candidate, all MVA needs for the next court battle is a close race and a few citizens from the right district willing to sign on to a lawsuit.

The organization has math experts on call who can break down IRV election results to demonstrate what he calls "the Michael Behrendt Effect."  In a St. Paul Pioneer Press op-ed today, Cliek rechristens the phenomenon- otherwise known as "nonmonotonicity"- after Behrendt, an Aspen, Colo. city-council candidate.

By Cliek's account, Behrendt lot in a ranked-choice voting fiasco in which voters actually hurt their preferred candidates by ranking them first.  IRV proponents contend the danger is impossibly small or even merely theoretical.  (Aspen's system differs from Minneapolis' in that voters' first and second choices carry equal weight in the first round of counting.

Where IRV Could Hold Sway

Indeed, said Jeanne Massey, executive director of IRV advocacy group FairVote Minnesota, even the scenario of a standard IRV-decided election is unlikely in most of the 22 (out of 25) races for 25 city seats in which it's possible - races like the one for mayor (incumbent R.T. Rybak and 10 challengers) in which the vote will be divided among enough candidates to trigger, in theory at least, the tabulation of voters' lower-rank choices.

Factoring in political probabilities reduces the likely number of races that could realistically see more than one round of counting to a mere handful, according to Massey, who made that assessment midway through the filing deadline day.  Two open seats, in Wards 1 and 10, seemed to Massey to have the best chance among 13 city council races - "but the chance is not very great," she said.

Massey is more certain that two multi-seat contests in Minneapolis will test the city's new system of ranked-choice voting: park board commissioner-at-large (eight candidates for three seats) and Board of Estimate and Taxation (six candidates for two seats).

In the tax-board race, incumbent Carol Becker is likely to win re-election outright, in Massey's view, leaving only one of two seats likely to be decided by countin lower-ranked votes.

The park board at-large race was already the most interseting in view of IRV - even before the final hour of filing, when District 6 incumbent Bob Fine jumped into the at-large free-for-all, instead of seeking re-election to his current seat. 

The field includes the three incumbent at-large commissioners: the Green Party's Annie Young and DFLers Mary Merrill Anderson, a former superintendent, and current board president Tom Nordyke.  Then there's DFLer John Erwin, a one-term commissioner whose term ended in 2003, and three newcomers - John BUtler, David Wahlstedt, and Nancy Bernard - in addition to Fine.  (Anderson, Nordyke, and Erwin earned the DFL endorsement at the party's city convention in May.)

Such multi-seat races were the most contentious topic when the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments May 13 in MVA's effort to overturn IRV in Minneapolis.  Justices asked both sides whether they could rule differently on the comparatively simple use of IRV in single-seat races and the more complex process in races in which candidates are vying for more than one seat.

If MVA were to field a candidate for the purposes of later filing a grievance, for which the court left an opening in its June 11 ruling , Massey said she expected it to be in one of the multi-seat races.

Two Last-Day Filers

Besides Fine, notables who surprised ballot-watchers with their filings on Tuesday were former City Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee, who will try to return to her old post, and current park board commissioner Carol Kummer, whose planned retirement went awry when a chosen successor got sick.

But perhaps more typical of people who put off filing for office until the last day are relative political ingenues like Malone.  A 30-year-old Northeast Minneapolis homeowne who designs websites for a living, Malone is passionate about dog parks.

While his name appears on a Supreme Court case over IRV, it's another issue that inspired Malone to run for office - his belief that the city's dog parks are "great, but there's lots of room for improvement." 

He would like to reduce the $60 annual permit fee, which he says prevents some people from bringing their dogs to the parks.

A Peace Corps volunteer who served in Samoa, Malone's main political experience was student government in college.  That's also the case for Butler, one of the contenders for the park board's three at-large seats who also fiiled for office on Tuesday. 

But that experiecne is further back for Butler, a retired postal service worker, who is 68.  A self-described "ultra-conservative" aligned with the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, Butler said his friend Bill McGaughey, a mayoral candidate, persuaded him to run.

"The honest truth," Butler said, "is you caught me on the way to the library to read up on the park board and what they do."  He also expressed curiosity about park commissioners' compensation.

A tennis player, Butler enjoys city parks but says the could be more "senior citizen friendly.  It wouldn't hurt to put in a shuffle board." 

Candidates who change their minds have until Thursday at 5 p.m. to withdraw from city elections.