Roseville considers instant runoff

By By Lenora Chu
Published February 4th 2004 in Pioneer Press

Ireland uses the process to elect its president, Australia its House of Representatives and London its mayor.

Roseville could be next to adopt instant-runoff voting, which supporters say eliminates the spoiler phenomenon of third-party candidates and costs less to administer than traditional elections.

And the state Legislature soon may weigh in on the issue. Advocates hope a special City Council election in Roseville will fast-track a bill to give Minnesota cities the option of instant-runoff elections.

Supporters in Roseville say the method is perfectly suited to the April 20 election for the council seat vacated when Craig Klausing became mayor.

Because there is no primary, more than two candidates could be on the ballot, creating the possibility that the victor could be ushered into office with less than 50 percent of the vote.

However, with instant-runoff voting — in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference — a second-round recount is done if no one wins an outright majority. A vote for the last-place finisher goes to the second choice on that ballot, and the final tally is adjusted.

The process is repeated until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total votes cast.

Instant-runoff voting can save money by eliminating the need for a primary in nonpartisan elections like mayor and City Council. A Roseville primary — an option the council decided against in November — would have cost $15,000 to $18,000.

In early January, the council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Legislature to allow the instant-runoff option.

Although state statute doesn't explicitly forbid instant-runoff voting, the language regarding ballot forms could be interpreted to exclude a design that would allow voters to rank their choices, according to Bruce Kennedy, lead policy advocate for FairVote Minnesota, a nonpartisan group for alternative voting methods.

"It's really a technical issue, but one that would scare off any city that wanted to try it," Kennedy said. "That's why we came up with House File 1719."

Already introduced in the state Senate for the coming session, the measure seeks to clarify the law by declaring that statutes shall not prohibit cities from adopting cumulative or ranked-order voting, which includes instant-runoff voting. It also would require electronic voting systems purchased after July 1 to support these types of voting.


Advocates say instant-runoff voting may be particularly beneficial in Minnesota, where third-party movements have been influential. The last two governors won with less than a majority of the vote.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty won in 2002 with 44.4 percent, and in 1998 Jesse Ventura prevailed with 37 percent.

Ken Pentel, the Green Party's candidate for governor in 2002, said being able to rank choices on the ballot takes the fear out of voting your conscience.

"It eliminates the idea of 'Don't Waste Your Vote' and the idea of people having to vote for the lesser of two evils," Pentel said. "The Democrats and Republicans — if they're not the first choice for people, they'll be the second choice."

Yet efforts to promote instant-runoff voting at the Legislature during three previous sessions failed to gain traction.

A measure introduced last year would have adopted instant-runoff voting for all statewide and congressional elections in Minnesota, plus U.S. president, but the concept proved too new and wide-ranging for lawmakers. The bill passed a Senate subcommittee but saw the light of day nowhere else.

Tony Solgard, chairman of FairVote Minnesota, said legislators simply need time to familiarize themselves with alternate voting methods.

"If they're elected under one system and being asked to change that system," he said, "they want to look at it pretty carefully."

This year, Solgard and other runoff advocates hope Roseville's ticking clock — city officials estimate the bill must be passed by the end of February to allow time to prepare for a runoff — and the council's resolution of support will breathe new life into their battle.

"It was something like kismet when this situation came about in Roseville unexpectedly," Kennedy said.


The chairmen of the House and Senate committees that will be the first stop for the bill are supporters — one is carrying it — and say they will usher the measure along.

"There's a genuine sense of urgency and absolutely I hope that we could respond accordingly," said Sen. Chuck Wiger, a North St. Paul DFLer and chairman of the newly formed Elections Committee, which is scheduled to hear the bill Thursday afternoon.

The chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, Rep. Jim Rhodes, remarked that the measure's scope might need to be narrowed in order to shove it through the Legislature in time.

"The way to get it passed may be to bring it as a pilot site for Roseville," said Rhodes, R-St. Louis Park, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.


Should the measure pass and the Roseville City Council choose to adopt instant runoff for the April 20 election, optical scan machines, which are not configured for the new method, would produce the first count only. Any recounts would have to be tallied by hand.

The city of Hopkins has also expressed interest in alternative voting methods. Last year, the council passed a resolution recommending that any new voting equipment be able to accommodate such methods.

Across the country, instant-runoff voting has gained recognition in recent years, especially with San Francisco's move in 2002 to adopt the method.

According to FairVote Minnesota, legislation to enact instant runoff has passed one body of the New Mexico Legislature, and the concept is gaining steam in Vermont, where Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean, the former governor, is a supporter.

Even so, back in Minnesota, Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer may hold exactly the kind of reservations the bill is likely to meet. "It's a complicated idea," she said. It would change a lot, and we should have cautious consideration."