A taste of Ranked-Choice Voting

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August 3, 2009
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes

Seventh Ward residents got an early stab at ranked-choice voting. The election’s winners: Snickers and Twix.

A few dozen Ward 7 voters last month got an early, very literal taste of Minneapolis’ new voting method.

At July’s Lunch with Lisa, Lisa Goodman’s monthly luncheon for constituents, the City Council member hosted a mock ranked-choice voting (RCV) election. The goal: teach her constituents how to use RCV and, in the process, learn which two candy bars are the ward’s favorite.

Snickers? Baby Ruth? Butterfinger? Twix?

(Download a pdf detailing the candy bar voting and helping to explain Ranked-Choice voting.)

At the top of the one-hour session, just five of about 40 attendees said they comfortably understood RCV. That wasn’t a huge surprise — even Goodman said she wasn’t initially fond of the voting method change.

But many more were willing to give it a shot.

Frank Braun, an 81-year-old veteran election judge, said he wanted to understand what he’d probably have to explain to voters in November. He was one of about two-thirds of the attendees who said they knew very little about RCV going into the luncheon.

“I still want to be a part of it,” Braun said. “I want to be a part of a new experience.”

The free candy didn’t hurt, either, he said while watching Snickers bars get strewn along his table.

“Now we’re getting some payola,” he said.

After everyone ranked their favorites — Braun picked Snickers No. 1, followed by Baby Ruth and Butterfinger — nonprofit FairVote Minnesota’s Jeanne Massey gave a 45-minute presentation on RCV. The room was mostly quiet early on, when Massey focused on how to fill out a ballot. But the tone noticeably shifted as she explained the instant-runoff process.

In single-seat races, a candidate wins when he or she gets 50 percent of votes plus one. If none reaches that mark after one round of ballot-counting, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated from every ballot. Voters who picked that person as their No. 1 instead have their second choices counted, a process that continues until somebody hits the 50-plus-one mark.

As Massey spoke, a couple dozen hands shot up.

People wanted to know whether their No. 2 votes would count if their No. 1s weren’t eliminated. They asked whether they had to vote for more than one candidate if they disliked the other choices. They asked if one political party gets more out of RCV than another.

Massey’s reply to each: “No.”

Next, she moved on to explaining multiple-seat races. When voters have to fill two or more seats with choices from one group of candidates, the runoff process takes on a mathematical, complex turn.
When one seat is filled and that candidate has more votes than the threshold-plus-one mark, those
votes are split into partial votes and reallocated to ballots’ second, and possibly third, choices.

A “Huh?” shot from the audience.

“You just lost me!” a voice exclaimed.

“You do what now?”

“What if —”


Massey slowly walked through the mathematics. She answered most questions. By the end of her presentation, the confusion level seemed low.

Braun afterward said he understood the process much more than he did before. He said he definitely supported RCV.

“She did a very good job. I’m not sure I could repeat it,” he said.

But what if while you’re an election judge someone asks you to explain the process?

“Oh, God,” Braun said, laughing and burying his hands in face. “Maybe I won’t want to be there!”

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or twitter.com/sctraudes.


Educate yourself on RCV

For those who missed Lunch With Lisa, there will still be numerous opportunities to practice or learn about ranked-choice voting. Nonprofit FairVote Minnesota is leading much of the voter education process, and it has several appearances lined up for August. They include:

— National Night Out, Aug. 4

— Lynnhurst Summer Fest, 5:30–8:30 p.m. Aug.6, 50th Street and Minnehaha Creek

— Loring Park and Uptown art festivals, Aug 8–9

— FairVote also is expected to have information at each of the city’s farmers markets, as well as at almost-daily Music in the Parks performances.

— Also in the works is a citywide practice event on Sept. 15, what would have been Minneapolis’ primary day.