Minneapolis OK for '09 instant-runoff , official says

STEVE BRANDT // Published October 1, 2008 in Minneapolis Star Tribune

The city's top election official is urging that Minneapolis go ahead next year with the voter-approved ranked-choice voting method -- even if it requires hand-counting.

Elections Director Cindy Reichert made that recommendation after rejecting proposals from two companies for equipment to handle the new voting method.

If the council agrees, which seems likely given past votes, the new voting method will go ahead in 2009 unless it's blocked by a pending lawsuit.

But the probable use of hand counts to settle some contests could delay the announcement of some winners by a day or more.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, was approved in a 2006 charter referendum. It allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference for city elections.

Generally, the weakest candidate is dropped at the end of each round of vote-counting, and second choices made by supporters of each dropped candidate are added to the votes of surviving candidates until one hits the required threshold for election.

"It's good to know that our elections department feels confident that we can do it," said Council Election Committee Chair Elizabeth Glidden. Fair Vote Minnesota, which promoted the new method, called Reichert's recommendation "a significant step forward."

But using a hand count in 2009 also makes it likely that some winners won't be known on election night.

That has Council President Barb Johnson, a foe of instant runoff, fuming. "This is like back to the Stone Age. It's absolutely ridiculous," she said.

If the new method had been used in 2005 city elections, hand-counting would have delayed the results of the mayor's race and three council races until at least the next day.

That's because current machines count only first-choice votes for candidates. If a candidate's first-choice votes reach the required 50 percent threshold in a single-seat race such as mayor or council, then there's a winner. If not, second and third preferences cast by some voters would need to be hand-counted.

The recommendation was surprising given that Reichert, who didn't return calls Wednesday, has previously expressed doubt about going ahead with the new method in 2009 and concern about hand counts.

But Council Member Cam Gordon said the speed with which the city counted ballots during last month's state judicial race recount may have assuaged Reichert's skepticism. That task was expected to take three days in Minneapolis but finished in one. That recount involved about 40,000 Minneapolis ballots, but the last city election had 71,000 ballots, and some would need to be hand-counted twice if the second choice of voters didn't put a candidate over the required threshold.

The charter amendment specified that instant-runoff voting be used next year unless the council spells out why it's not ready.

A group called the Minnesota Voters Alliance filed suit in December in Hennepin County District Court to block instant-runoff voting in Minneapolis. It argues that the system isn't permitted by the state Constitution. That challenge is scheduled for a court hearing on Wednesday.