Talking ranked choice voting with 20 days to go

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October 16, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Political science professor Larry Jacobs, left, moderated a discussion on ranked choice voting with Doug Chapin and City Clerk Casey Carl.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Forum is a preview of the Nov. 5 election and the future of RCV

Minneapolis’ second-ever municipal election using ranked choice voting arrives during a period political science professor Larry Jacobs described as “a heyday, a period of inventiveness” for the country’s voting laws.

Whether ranked choice voting spreads beyond the few U.S. cities that already use it — including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. — could depend on the outcome of the Nov. 5 election; not who wins the mayor’s office, but whether the ranked choice voting system passes the test of a 35-candidate race. That was one message that came out of a Wednesday forum on ranked choice voting, or RCV, at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Jacobs was joined by City Clerk Casey Carl and Doug Chapin, director of the school’s Election Academy, for a city election preview, a talk that touched on both the mechanics of RCV and the system’s potential. Carl said election officials from New York City and Washington, D.C. — two cities currently considering RCV — are expected to be monitoring the race closely.

With just 20 days remaining until the election, Carl said his office was focused on a “very aggressive” voter outreach campaign to explain the basics of RCV. Voting “ambassadors” have been making the rounds at neighborhood meetings, and a portion of the city’s election website is dedicated to explaining RCV.

Jacobs noted that, despite those efforts, he often encounters Minneapolis voters who don’t understand why their second and third choices on the ballot matter.

Carl explained that they matter when a voter’s first choice is eliminated from the race. That will happen in the rounds of tabulation that begin after the polls close, when election workers begin counting up votes on a computer spreadsheet. If a voter’s first choice has no chance of winning, then ballot counters look at the voter’s second choice and reassign the vote accordingly. If the voter’s second choice is eliminated, then ballot counters look at the third.

A voter’s ballot is “exhausted” when none of his or her picks remains in the race. And while voters don’t have to select three candidates, it’s possible their ballots will be exhausted much faster if they don’t, Carl said.

Carl also gave a preview of what voters can expect after polls close. In races where one candidate has clearly crossed the 50 percent-plus-one vote margin, an unofficial winner will be announced the night of the election; otherwise, the rounds of tabulation will begin the next afternoon, starting with the mayor’s race.

Asked by Jacobs what might go wrong on Nov. 5, Chapin said an RCV election faces many of the same pitfalls as any other: uninformed election judges, garbled explanations of voting rules, mechanical polling machine errors and misprinted ballots, among others. But he expressed confidence in Carl and his staff.

“If there is one weak link, I don’t think it’s the voting office,” Chapin said.

Still, their performance will be closely watched in what he said is a pivotal election for RCV.

“It’s hard to understate the importance of what Minneapolis and other Minnesota cities are attempting to do here,” Chapin said.

Clark noted his staff is preparing a detailed presentation on what, exactly, will happen when the ballots come in on Nov. 5, including a demonstration of the tabulation process and the technology that will be used to count votes. The event is 6 p.m.–8:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in Pohlad Hall at Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.