"We've got 4,500 signatures already, although there may be more out there that we don't know about. We're going to pass 5,000, there's no question about that," said Beth Mercer-Taylor, manager of the ballot campaign, at a forum today on so-called "instant runoff voting" at Hamline University. About 60 people, overwhelmingly supporters of the idea, attended.

The discussion touched briefly on the ongoing effort to add instant runoff voting (IRV) to St. Paul's city charter. It needs only 5,098 signatures to get a spot on the ballot in the city, and elections officials have set an Aug. 14 deadline to submit such a petition this year, allowing time to confirm the signatures are from registered St. Paul voters.

But activists who want to allow voters to rank candidates, rather than vote for only one, are already looking past their petition and toward winning a general election vote enacting IRV #150; possibly even next year. The proposed system would eliminate primary elections and allow voters to list candidates for municipal offices by preference instead.

Minneapolis voters adopted the method in principal last fall.

Paul Busch, one of a score or so of the most active petition circulators in St. Paul, said that he'd rank the chances of getting enough signatures to put the issue before voters this fall at "nine, maybe nine and a half." But the odds the measure might pass may not be highest in November, he conceded.

The city council elections in St. Paul tend to draw the lowest turnout in the four-year election cycle. The 2003 races drew just 32,652 voters city-wide, scarcely half a mayoral election and just 24 percent of a presidential race.

The political profile of the electorate also tends to shift significantly from year to year: in three of the last four mayoral elections the dominant DFL party endorsed candidate lost, but the party has had a lock on the city's even-year legislative elections for decades. In Ward 2 in 2003, DFL endorsee Dave Thune came within 123 primary election votes of being knocked out of the council race altogether.

The volatility of low-turnout elections has IRV supporters mulling whether they'd be better off holding their petition until after this fall's elections, possibly for 2008. The signatures don't expire until they are submitted, which prompts a 10-day examination of the signatures and a 10-day window for circulators to correct any deficiencies.

"Our experience is that the regular 'Joe Voter' is actually more supportive than the political activists who... tend to turn out in years like this," said Mercer-Taylor. "We have more signatures in some wards than the winners had votes cast in the last election."

An extended period between a successful petition drive and an election would also allow supporters to raise money for paid staff and a full-fledged campaign. Such an effort, though, would also be competing with a presidential election, as well as the 2008 Republican National Convention, scheduled to open just 10 weeks before the November election.

Which isn't to say that supporters of ranked-choice voting aren't tempted by a wider spotlight, either. The results of the 2000 presidential election remain a rallying point for backers of alternate voting schemes, and came up at the Hamline forum.

Tuesday's gathering also included comments from Minnesota secretary of state Mark Ritchie, former Congressman Tim Penny and state representative Carlos Mariani, of St. Paul.

Ritchie has organized a task force to consider implementation of ranked-choice voting across Minnesota, although he noted that the Legislature, not the secretary of state, would ultimately decide whether to implement a new voting method. "There's maybe 100 things that might need to be changed in state statute," he said.

Mariani, who represents St. Paul's West Side, downtown and parts of Summit Hill and W. 7th St. said he thought instant runoff voting may be worth the effort and the potential expense, which both remain unknown.

"With this framework," Mariani said, "there's a fuller array of people's hopes and values being expressed at election time. And that invitation, in an of itself, drives a sense of ownership, I would hope, a sense of excitement and rejuvenation... that is currently missing."

Tim Nelson can be reached at 651-292-1159 or tnelson@pioneerpress.com