Steve Brandt, Minneapolis Star Tribune 23 Oct. 2009
Not only will it take weeks before all results are known from the first attempt at ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis, but some of the election-night results will be misleading. That was the picture painted Thursday by city election officials as they conducted a run-through for reporters of the complicated vote-counting scheme. City officials expressed confidence that, on election night, they will be able to post how many people voted and the number of first-, second- and third-choice votes cast for each candidate. Trouble is, for each race they won't yet know the key number that determines who wins: the "threshold," the minimum number of votes a candidate needs to be elected. Although it will be safe to say that candidates who post overwhelming margins are elected, the absence of the key number will make predicting a winner hazardous in closer races. Candidates for single-seat races, which can have only one winner, need to amass one more vote than 50 percent to win. But that is 50 percent of the valid ballots, after errant ballots are removed. And the city won't start determining that threshold for winning -- which will vary by race -- until the day after the election. A lower threshold will be set for races such as Park Board where there will be multiple winners. The removal of errant ballots before setting the threshold is mandated by the ordinance that governs the ranked-choice system approved by voters in 2006. Voters can have their vote thrown out in a given race by ranking two candidates as their first choice, for example. Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, which advocated for the new methods, said she expects an error rate of less than 1 percent of votes cast. Another reason for the delay in tallying is that ballot counters will need to tally write-in votes before establishing the threshold. The city plans to transmit periodic updates of results on election night to the Secretary of State's office for posting on a state website. Those will include the first-, second- and third-choice votes for each candidate. But the second- and third-choice votes won't mean much until first-choice votes alone don't put someone over the threshold. That's the stage in single-seat races at which lower-ranking candidates on first-choice votes are dropped, and the second- or third-choice votes on those ballots are tallied. That was needed in more than one-third of the most recent ranked-choice races in San Francisco and Pierce County, Wash. How much those added choices can shift an outcome can be illustrated by the race for county executive in Pierce County last fall, where the eventual winner ranked almost 9 percentage points behind after the first ballot. The good news for voters is that it's easier to cast a ranked-choice ballot than to count them. A voter may rank up to three candidates in order of preference, or write in a substitute. One result that voters should know election night is whether a charter amendment involving the Board of Estimate and Taxation passes or fails because that's a yes-no vote without ranked choices. Unless there are clear-cut winners on first-choice votes, the races for the three citywide seats on the Park Board and two on the Board of Estimate and Taxation will be counted last. They feature a more complicated counting regimen in which both surplus votes over the threshold accumulated by winners and votes cast by supporters of dropped candidates are redistributed according to their second or third choices.
Steve Brandt, Minneapolis Star Tribune 21 Nov. 2011
What was probably the most drawn-out election count in Minneapolis election history finally rounded out the makeup of next year's Park Board on Friday. Bob Fine, Annie Young and John Erwin won the three at-large seats. Only Fine hit the election threshold of 25 percent of votes under the city's ranked-choice voting system. Young hit nearly 23 percent and Erwin 21 percent before alternate voter choices from dropped candidates were exhausted. The race was one of the most competitive in the city because it featured four incumbents and Erwin, a former commissioner. Among those losing were Mary Merrill Anderson, who served a term on the board after stepping down as superintendent, and Tom Nordyke, the current board chair. Nordyke said the makeup of the incoming board means it will likely seek a new superintendent to replace Jon Gurban, whose term expires June 30. One factor affecting the race was the failure of the state DFL organization to get its sample ballot of endorsees, which is influential in Minneapolis, to voters before the election. A mailing snafu caused that, which probably cost party endorsees Erwin, Merrill Anderson and Nordyke votes. "I think it probably made a pretty big difference," Nordyke said. Fine's status at the head of the pack continues a remarkable string of victories for the lawyer and longtime coach despite not winning the DFL endorsement he has sought several times. He ran citywide after failing to win endorsement against Brad Bourn, who went on to win Fine's current southwest Minneapolis district seat. Neighborhood employee Young, who had the backing of the Green Party, will start her sixth term. Erwin, a horticulture professor, will be sworn in for his second term after sitting out a term for family reasons. They'll join incumbents Scott Vreeland, Jon Olson and Carol Kummer and newcomers Liz Wielinski, Anita Tabb and Bourn. The 17-day wait for election results caused anxiety. "It's hard," said Merrill Anderson. "Everyone asks me every day, and you don't have any answer. It really puts you in limbo. How do you plan for the future -- the future being whether you're on the board?" Erwin said, "I think it's stressful for everyone. You build up to election night and you don't know the answer for weeks. There's no easy way to second-guess the outcome until it happens." Fine said he was confident but still had anxiety. "I can tell you that my daughter, who lives in Chicago, has been calling all the time, and she wants to know right away, so she's nervous," he said.
Steve Brandt, Minneapolis Star Tribune 25 Nov. 2011
Midway between Minneapolis city elections, it's looking more doubtful that the city will have new equipment in place for 2013 balloting to avoid another lengthy hand count of voter choices under ranked-choice voting. In 2009, it took 18 days after the election and lots more money for the last winner to be declared after a hand count of second-choice ballots determined the outcome. Hennepin County's election director said she hopes the county can buy new voting equipment in late 2012 or early 2013. Asked how optimistic she was that such equipment could count the ranked-choice ballots, Rachel Smith responded, "It's certainly possible. ... I'm still optimistic that we'll have something in place for Minneapolis." But she conceded that system may not automate all of the counting required under ranked-choice when the first choices of voters don't generate a winner. In Ramsey County, which runs St. Paul elections, election manager Joe Mansky said he doubts Minneapolis will have machines in place for 2013 that could count ranked choices automatically. "I'm not sure there is enough time to get from where they are to where they need to be," Mansky said after recently finishing St. Paul's only hand-counted race in one day. He's recommending against automating the counting of ranked votes in St. Paul, partly because he feels a manual count is more transparent to candidates and the public. Ranked-choice voting is used in both Minneapolis and, this month for the first time, St. Paul. Voters rank municipal candidates in order of preference, and the second-choice votes of also-rans can determine the winner. Red Wing and Duluth are considering having voters rank choices. The process of aggregating the choices of voters requires software that hasn't finished the lengthy federal certification process, much less earned state approval. That has prompted Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, the prime advocacy group supporting ranked-choice voting, to urge that the state drop the requirement that new voting systems obtain federal certification before they get state approval. She pointed to Maine, one of the states where federal certification isn't required, which helped the city of Portland automate its ranked-choice count. But Mansky said he'd firmly oppose that, arguing that federal certification shows the equipment meets federal standards. Any slipup by a city using noncertified equipment likely would result in a passel of new laws imposing additional requirements on cities and counties, he said. Complicated by differences Differences in how Minneapolis and St. Paul conduct elections and count votes complicate the purchase of new voting equipment by several metro counties that have been working cooperatively toward that. For example, St. Paul voters rank candidates for council races in one odd-year election and for mayor two years later. All are single-seat contests, with one winner for each race. In contrast, city elections in Minneapolis are every four years. Voters pick a mayor, 13 council members, nine Park Board members in six district and one at-large contest, and two members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. The park at-large seat and two tax board seats are multiple-seat elections in which several people are elected, with different thresholds for winning than single-seat contests like mayor or council. The extra cost of ranked-choice voting in 2009 in Minneapolis was estimated at $345,000 more than the cost of the traditional primary and general elections it replaced in 2005. A hefty share was for the space and workers for counting by hand. "The difficulty is, thus far, we have not identified equipment that's far enough down the certification path that we feel that confident that we could obtain ranked-choice voting-compatible equipment by the end of ," said city clerk Casey Carl.
Steve Brandt, Minneapolis Star Tribune 21 Nov. 2012
Another three-way governor's race that will end with a sub-majority winner has fueled calls for Minnesota to adopt ranked-choice voting. In 2009, Minneapolis became the first Minnesota city to use ranked-choice voting in about 50 years, and its experience offers some cautions. The allure of the idea is clear: It has been 16 years and four elections since a Minnesota governor gained office with more than 50 percent of the vote. Ranked-choice voting is a way to get a winner with majority backing, even in a three-way race. Proponents say it allows people to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping to elect their least favorite. Under the system, a voter lists first, second and third choices, with lower choices coming into play only if that voter's first pick is counted out. But that comes at a cost. Ranking candidates statewide would mean counting votes by hand, as Minneapolis did last year, or spending millions of dollars for machines capable of doing the count automatically. More would be spent to educate voters. Minneapolis spent 30 percent more than normal in an election year to launch ranked-choice voting, chiefly to count votes. Ranking candidates in Minneapolis failed to accomplish some of the things advocates promised. It didn't raise participation in the absence of a close mayoral race. Indeed, fewer voters turned out. It didn't swell the number of candidates -- 94 filed for municipal offices in 2005, the last year those elections were held, and 95 did so last year. The same number of racial minority candidates ran for office as in 2005. Also, ranked-choice voting did not change the order of candidates in any single-seat race. Those who got the most first-choice votes wound up finishing first in the three single-seat races in which second choices were tallied to get a winner with majority support. Four of every 10 voters said in a post-election survey that they didn't bother to vote for more than one candidate, the whole point of the new system. Some didn't find more than one candidate acceptable; others didn't know enough about the field to award a second or third choice, they told pollsters. But some say it may be too soon to draw conclusions. "I'm not sure based on one election what we really learned about it," said David Schultz, who teaches election law at Hamline and University of Minnesota law schools and analyzed Minneapolis' use of ranked-choice voting. "There may be a lot more being promised here about what ranked-choice voting can do than what it can deliver." Some goals realized Minneapolis is the eighth U.S. city to try ranked-choice voting in recent times. Most are liberal enclaves where ranking candidates isn't likely to reshuffle results appreciably, said Schultz, who served briefly on the board of FairVote Minnesota, which advocates ranked-choice voting. The group has had some successes. Minneapolitans approved the ranking of candidates in a 2006 referendum, with 65 percent supporting the charter amendment making the switch. According to a St. Cloud State University post-election survey, an equal percentage of those who said they voted in the 2009 election thought the city should continue to use ranked-choice voting, with most respondents finding it simple to vote. The same day that Minneapolis voters inaugurated the new system, St. Paul voters approved a switch to ranked-choice balloting for city seats, but the charter amendment got a much slimmer margin of support, with 52.5 percent backing. There also have been discussions of switching to ranking candidates in Duluth, Red Wing and Hopkins, but none has a formal charter proposal pending. Hopkins was the last Minnesota city to use ranked-choice before Minneapolis, dropping it in 1959. Ranked-choice voting did accomplish some goals. Genuinely undecided voters got to support more than one candidate. Voters generally gave the system high marks in the St. Cloud State poll. There were no indications of mass confusion after more than $100,000 was spent to prep voters on the new method. Even the hand-counting of ballots, which delayed some official results for up to 17 days, happened faster than anticipated. Hand-counting was needed because no equipment was certified nationally and in Minnesota to tabulate rankings of candidates. One manufacturer has since gained federal certification for equipment that it bills as able to handle the voting method. Significantly more expensive The cost of paying workers and renting space to sort ballots by first, second and third choices was a major reason that ranked-choice voting cost $345,727 more in Minneapolis than the city's traditional 2005 election. That's despite the city holding both primary and general elections in 2005, compared to 2009's all-in-one election. The higher costs for ranked-choice voting are likely to continue regardless of whether machines are available to count the vote. The city expects to repeat most of its voter education spending in 2013 after several intervening non-city elections in which traditional voting will be used. Interim election director Virginia Gelms estimated the recurring extra cost for ranked-choice voting at $108,692, even with automated tabulation. That doesn't count the cost of new machines. Schultz also called attention to a higher number of voter errors in 2009 than in 2005, some of which vote-counting machines caught and gave a voter a chance to correct. He called the rate of errors by voters and spoiled ballots "potentially troublesome" and significant enough to affect future outcomes. Hennepin County expects to begin discussions with cities and other counties next year on replacing its vote-tabulation system, an expenditure that could top $3 million. Election manager Rachel Smith said the county will research systems that can accommodate ranked-choice voting. The St. Cloud survey found some differences among voters in their use of the rankings for candidates. The youngest and lowest-income voters and members of racial minority groups were most likely to use only one of their three choices. How many candidates were ranked also varied widely by precinct, according to a Star Tribune analysis of returns from the 2009 mayoral contest. The range was from 19 percent using all three choices in one precinct to 92 percent in another. Even in one of the most competitive elections -- a five-way contest for the Nokomis-area park commissioner -- only a third of voters ranked three candidates.
Return to main page