Minneapolis may get to weigh instant-runoff voting
There would be no primary. Voters would rank candidates on the city election ballot in one-two-three order; totals would decide the race.

By Rochelle Olson
Published May 30th 2006 in Star Tribune
Voting may become as easy as one, two, three for Minneapolis residents.

The city's voters will likely have a chance to decide this fall if they want to replace conventional elections with instant-runoff balloting.

With instant-runoff voting there would be no primaries, which traditionally have low voter turnout. Instead, there would be one election day and one ballot. Voters would rank three candidates in order of preference.

If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the least number of first-place votes is eliminated. But those ballots are then counted for their second choices, which are added to the vote totals. A candidate wins when he or she receives at least 50 percent of the vote.

After the City Council voted 11-1 to put the issue on the November ballot, the next stop for instant-runoff voting in Minneapolis is the city's Charter Commission, which can make suggestions, but is unlikely to derail the referendum.

"Essentially it will make elections in the city fairer, and there's the ability for people to vote for who they want to vote for," said City Council Member Scott Benson, who sponsored the resolution.

No Minnesota city has instant-runoff voting, although some, including Hopkins and Roseville, have considered it. Burlington, Vt., became the first city to elect a mayor using instant-runoff voting in March.

San Francisco has elected members to the Board of Supervisors using the system.

The balloting would affect only city elections -- mayor, City Council, Library and Park boards. Even if voters approve the change, a new style of voting could be a long way off in Minneapolis because of the cost and potential legal challenges.

"The reason I voted against it is we don't know if it's legal and we don't know how much it's going to cost," said Council President Barbara Johnson, the only "no" vote. "Someone will challenge it, we'll go to court and we'll find out."

Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder said there's a "strong chance" the instant-runoff voting proposal will be on the ballot along with school board candidates this fall.

Ginder said it's unclear how the courts would rule because the matter hasn't been before the state Supreme Court.

Soonest would be 2009

The earliest city election that could be affected by the change would be in 2009, but Benson said the council could push that back if the cost of acquiring the software to count the votes is prohibitive.

"I don't think anybody on the council is interested in spending $1 million to do this," he said.

Still, supporters are buoyed and view success in Minneapolis as a precursor to changing statewide elections.

"Our task now is to educate the voters before November," said Jeanne Massey, lead organizer for the Minneapolis Better Ballot Campaign. "We'll be gearing up for the general election campaign for referendum. We've got an enormous base to build from."

The change has the backing of the Minneapolis DFL Party. The state Green and Independence parties both support instant-runoff voting in their platforms. "We're going to be actively engaged in trying to help it pass," said former Independence Party chairman Jack Uldrich.

Green Party Council Member Cam Gordon has been an active supporter since 1997. "One of the big things that it does is it helps people to vote their first choice or their heart," he said.

Gordon admitted that it might make a bigger difference statewide. The governor's race, for example, has been split three ways in recent years with the winner capturing less than 50 percent of the vote.

Asked whether he thought it could pass, Gordon laughed and said, "I never thought it would get this far. ... We'll have to see if there is some organized opposition to it."