St. Paul will cast vote on instant-runoff elections
City residents could decide on Nov. 3 to adopt a ranked-choice system for municipal races.

By Chris Havens
Published October 18th 2009 in Star Tribune
St. Paul voters will get to decide in a couple of weeks whether they want to change how they vote in municipal elections.

They will be asked Nov. 3 whether they want instant-runoff voting (IRV), also known as ranked-choice voting, to replace the current primary and general election system. In IRV, there are no primaries because all candidates are on the general election ballot and voters rank them by preference.

The St. Paul Better Ballot Campaign has been the most active proponent of IRV, organizing a petition drive, putting out lawn signs and recruiting supporters through house parties and restaurant events.

Supporters say IRV provides more choice, improves representation, increases voter turnout and promotes more positive and informative campaigns.

IRV opponents, however, recently formed a political committee, No Bad Ballots, to sway opinions away from the voting method.

They say IRV is complicated, confusing, expensive and will leave voters out. "What's so frustrating is there has not been any organized opposition to this. Most people just go, 'Jeez, elections stink, so this must be better,'" said Chuck Repke, co-chairman of the opposition group and longtime DFL operative.

Proponents point to low voter turnout at primaries and say IRV is better because all the candidates get a chance because there's only one election. If no candidate reaches a majority (50 percent plus one vote) in the first round of counting, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. The second-place votes on that candidate's ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates.

Repke said that's too much to expect unsophisticated voters to remember and that a voter could end up hurting his or her top candidate's chances with a first-choice ranking.

It's possible for the candidate who gets the most first-place votes in the first round of counting to end up losing after other candidates' votes are reassigned.

"It makes such radical assumptions about how people make choices," he said. "We choose yes/no, we don't rank.

"Why should I want others who made a losing decision to make the overall decision?"

Ellen Brown, campaign coordinator for the Better Ballot group, said it's not that confusing and that no matter how hard the effort, voter turnout at primaries isn't going to improve.

"People are ready for a change," she said. "I think they realize the system is closed to people with broader points of view. IRV allows the greatest and most diverse number of voters to choose among the greatest and most diverse number of candidates in the general election."

Administrative challenges

From an administrative standpoint, Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky isn't thrilled with the idea of IRV.

He has sent letters to the City Council and Charter Commission outlining potential problems with switching. They include higher costs, lack of certified voting equipment and contrasting procedures because county and school board elections wouldn't use instant-runoff voting.

Mansky said he has estimated that it could cost $10,000 per day for election judges to do hand counts if a winner isn't selected in the first round of voting. At this point, the county's machines can't register votes after the first round.

Brown said that she doesn't think it would be that problematic and that there likely could be certified voting equipment by 2011.

Voter approval of IRV would change the city's charter. The method wouldn't be used until 2011.

San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., use IRV. So does Pierce County, Wash., although voters there will decide this November whether they want to eliminate IRV and go back to primary and general elections.

Minneapolis voters adopted the system in 2006 and will be using it for the first time this year. It's estimated that it could take weeks to get results in races that aren't settled in the first round because the machines can only count first-round votes. Subsequent rounds would need to be hand-counted. Officials say it's likely that problem will be resolved in following contests.

More than 5,300 people signed a petition last year to hold a referendum in St. Paul on adopting IRV, but the council refused to put it on the ballot because City Attorney John Choi said it probably was unconstitutional. The council passed a resolution at the time saying it would reconsider based on the outcome of a Supreme Court case against Minneapolis, in which the Minnesota Voters Alliance questioned the constitutionality of having voters rank candidates.

The high court rejected the challenge, and the St. Paul City Council subsequently approved putting the question of using IRV in city races to the people.

The people will have their say Nov. 3.