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Much work ahead for Minneapolis' instant-runoff voting

Star Tribune, November 15, 2006
http://www.startribune.com/587/story/811799.html

The new system for Minneapolis elections is scheduled to go into effect in 2009, but there may be obstacles.

Terry Collins, Star Tribune

Minneapolis voters spoke loudly last week when, by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, they chose a new kind of balloting for most city elections -- instant-runoff voting.

End of story? Hardly.

There are still hurdles to be cleared before instant runoff's planned launch three years from now -- for one, setting the ground rules on precisely how the system will work. Then there's an estimated $1.2 million to $1.4 million cost to implement the system, mostly for new voting equipment. And there's a chance that opponents will mount a legal challenge.

But if all goes through, the 2009 election for mayor and City Council will be like nothing Minneapolis voters have seen.

Instead of two elections for those offices -- a primary and a general contest -- there will be just one. The ballot will ask voters to rank their first, second and third choices for each seat, provided there are that many candidates.

Those second and third choices could end up putting a candidate over the top, if the race is close.

Supporters say the system gives voters more voice and politicians an incentive for positive campaigning. Critics say that, among other things, it cuts back debate by eliminating primaries.

San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., already use instant-runoff voting, also called single transferable vote and ranked-choice voting, as do voters in Ireland and Australia.

And residents of Oakland and Davis, Calif., as well as those of Pierce County, Wash., also voted last week to adopt the new kind of election.

Minneapolis residents will still use traditional voting methods for the school board, county, state and federal offices.

Setting things up

Now council members and city officials in Minneapolis, along with Hennepin County officials and the Minnesota secretary of state, must create the rules and procedures to get instant-runoff balloting into place by 2009.

"We're not in this alone," Cindy Reichert, the city's elections director, said last week. "This is a complex process and quite an undertaking that needs to be done right the first time."

In single-seat races, if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated. The second-choice votes on those ballots are allotted to the candidates who got them. This process is repeated until a candidate receives a majority of votes.

The process gets considerably more complicated for multiple-seat elections, such as the Park and Recreation Board, Library Board and Board of Estimate and Taxation.

In a current Park Board election, for example, voters select up to three candidates if three seats are open; the winners are the top three vote-getters. Under instant-runoff voting, voters would still choose multiple candidates, but would rank them by first choice, second choice and so on.

Those totals will be tallied to ensure that as few votes as possible are "wasted," in other words, that the choices of as many ballots as possible are counted.

How votes are transferred

If one candidate gets more first-choice votes than needed to be elected, the lower-ranked choices on those ballots will receive those "surplus" votes. If a candidate is defeated because he or she receives the fewest votes, the lower-ranked choices on those ballots will receive those votes.

"When we talk about 'wasted votes,' it is not the voter who wastes a vote; it is the system that wastes votes," said Tony Solgard, president of FairVote Minnesota, an organization that educates about voting methods. "Minneapolis has adopted a system that wastes fewer votes and makes every vote count as fully as possible."

Steven Hill, political reform director for the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington and California, believes that the process will allow residents to select governing bodies that actually "mirror" them in terms of race, gender and background.

This is called proportional representation, and supporters also believe that it gives voters more choice and brings higher voter turnout, doing away with a winner-take-all outcome.

Hill, who played a key role in San Francisco's instant-runoff campaign in 2002, said that city had its third election with the system last week and that no problems were reported. In exit polls, 87 percent of voters said they understood the process, he said.

In Minneapolis, instant-runoff voting could be used as early as the 2009 races, Reichert said. But the City Council also would have the option to postpone it, if it acts at least four months before the election.

Some raise questions

Council President Barbara Johnson, the lone council member opposing instant runoff, said she wonders where the money to implement it will come from. "It will mean some other project won't get done," she said. "Something's going to have to give, because we don't have $1.2 million lying around."

Andy Cilek, president of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which opposes instant runoff, said the timeline will give his organization a chance to challenge its constitutionality.

"By then, we'll have ample firepower to prove how bad it is," Cilek said. "Right now, it's their argument versus ours." The alliance says that, among other problems, instant-runoff voting would suppress debate by eliminating primaries and could create an artificial majority for a winning candidate by including second-choice votes.

Educating residents about their new election system also will be a priority, Solgard and Reichert said.

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790 • tcollins@startribune.com

©2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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