Star Tribune

An instant-runoff voting plan proposed in Hopkins raises questions as to how the votes would be counted.

Editor's Corner Sam Barnes
Last update: January 24, 2006 – 10:32 AM

"Now let me get this straight..."
It was a phrase I repeated quite a few times last week when talking with some people who want to start "instant runoff" voting in Hopkins.

The idea is to have voters cast ballots that show not only their top choice for an office but their second and third choices as well. Then if no one has a clear majority, second-place votes would be counted.

The idea has been used by a number of places -- Vermont, San Francisco, several foreign countries -- but just for balloting in which one candidate will be elected. Hopkins wants to use it in multi-seat elections as well. And that's where things can get really complicated.

The Hopkins City Council last week considered adopting an ordinance that would have put this new system into place.

The law, drawn up at the direction of a city task force, would have had voters in the mayor and City Council elections use a "ranked-choice" ballot. If five candidates were running for two council seats, as was the case in the last city elections, the voters would have been allowed to rank the candidates 1 through 5. That would have been the easy part.

But when it comes to counting the votes, the ordinance was not so clear as to how they would be tallied.

Council member Bruce Rowan raised concerns and the council sent its Alternative Voting Task Force back to the drawing board to answer his questions and others.

The system would be fairly straightforward in determining who was the top vote-getter in a multi-seat election: As in elections of a single office-holder, if the candidate who got the most No. 1 votes had a clear majority, he would be elected. If he fell short of that majority, the second-place votes of the last-place candidate would be counted and allocated to the remaining candidates, and so on, until one candidate had been "named" on a clear majority of ballots.

OK, even that's a bit confusing, I'll admit, and may have raised some questions in your mind. But that's nothing compared with the system for picking the No. 2 finisher, who would also get a seat. I never really got a clear explanation as to how that count would work.

No one has done this before, apparently, so they're inventing this system anew. And in a conversation with the chairwoman of the task force, Fran Hesch, it was clear that there are some wrinkles still to be ironed out.

Hesch says the way the ordinance was drafted, the second winner in a race for two seats would be selected by putting all the votes "back in the mix" and applying the instant runoff rules: Eliminating the bottom vote-getter and allocating his supporters' second-place votes to the other candidates. But what about the second-place votes of those remaining three candidates? Shouldn't they be counted in this "re-mix" as well?

That's one of the concerns that Rowan raises. "My suggestion," he says -- and Hesch agrees -- "is that you count the first-and second-place votes equally" from the start, since you are electing the top two vote-getters, and then allocate third-place votes of the last-place candidate until you have winners named on a majority of the ballots.

Got that?

"This doesn't lend itself to conversational explanation," Hesch allows, but the task force will try to clear up the confusion in the next few weeks. Hesch says the ultimate solution might have to be that the system be used only for elections that produce a single winner -- like the mayor's race. Experts had "warned us that instant runoff voting doesn't work that well for multiple seats," she says.

But Rowan says he still has high hopes for using the system in multi-seat balloting. "It would be nice to be the first city that actually has a system in place that works."

Why go to all this trouble?

Hesch sees Hopkins as a laboratory where instant runoffs can be polished and perfected. "We want to start this at the local level so we can grow this to the higher levels."

The ultimate goal is to eliminate elections in which a candidate wins with less than majority support -- like the 1998 election in which Jesse Ventura won the governor's office with just 37 percent of the vote.

Contact the writer at 612-673-7840 or