RANKED-CHOICE VOTING // voter's guide 2009

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October 26, 2009
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes

What is ranked-choice voting (RCV)?

Minneapolis’ new voting method. If you’re headed to the polls Nov. 3, you’ll use it.

Rather than asking voters to pick one candidate per race, RCV allows them to rank up to three candidates per race. If top choices fail, second and third choices could help carry candidates to victory.

RCV will be used only in municipal elections. That means Minneapolis voters won’t use it for school board, statewide or national elections.

RCV was adopted by voters in 2006.

How does it work?

The No. 1 thing voters need to know: For every race, pick a candidate you’d most like to see win. Then pick your second favorite. Finally, pick a third choice.

That’s the simple part. From there, things get complicated. (To avoid the complex details, jump to the next section.)

In single-seat races, RCV relies on a 50 percent-plus-one rule. What that means is a candidate wins when he or she gets 50 percent of votes plus one. If no candidate reaches that off the bat, the runoff process eliminates the lowest vote getter off of every ballot. The ballots that marked that candidate as a first choice then instead have their second choices counted. That process continues until one candidate hits the 50-plus-one mark.

Multiple-seat races are more complex. The threshold for victory will always be lower than 50 percent plus one, but the exact amount depends on the number of seats being filled. (For the three-seat Park Board at-large race, that number is 25 percent plus one. For the two-seat Board of Estimate and Taxation race, it’s 33.3 percent.)

If a candidate in a multi-seat race wins but receives votes beyond the necessary threshold, those extra votes are reallocated to ballots’ lower-ranked choices. For examples, if 500 votes seat a candidate but he or she receives 1,000 first-choice votes, half a vote from each of those ballots would go toward the voters’ second choices.

Click here for a graphic that shows how a mock ranked-choice, multiple-seat election was counted.

When will we know winners?

The city’s Elections Department has been working to figure out the quickest way to get results back to the voters. The gist is that it will take more time than we’re used to — every single ballot will be hand-counted.

A worst-case scenario presented in May shows that process taking 129 eight-hour-day shifts. It likely won’t take that long, but don’t expect finalized results — especially in the multi-seat races — until well after Nov. 3.

It’s possible that winners will be announced as counts come in, but the declaration of formal election outcomes requires all counting to be complete. If results aren’t in by the beginning of 2010, all current officeholders will have their terms extended until the winners are announced.

Is it constitutional?

On its face, there’s nothing illegal about the charter language that sets up RCV. So ruled the state Supreme Court, which heard a lawsuit that challenged the system’s constitutionality. A citizens’ group said RCV doesn’t amount to one person, one vote, but the court in June said that in many ways the system is akin to packing a primary and a general election into one day.

“In the [non-RCV] general election,” Chief Justice Eric Magnuson wrote, “voters who voted for candidates eliminated in the primary are allowed to cast another ballot, which necessarily will be for a different candidate — presumably, their second choice. This is no different than the counting of the second-choice votes of voters for eliminated candidates in instant-runoff voting.”

What does a RCV ballot look like? How do I fill it out?

Click here for a sample ballot, courtesy of the city.

What’s important to remember: Vote for a different person in each column. Also know that you’re not required to vote for any more people than you like, which means you’re allowed to leave the second and third columns blank if you want to.

A couple of things to take special note of: A candidate’s chances aren’t bolstered by choosing them in multiple columns — extra votes are automatically counted as blank votes — and for multiple-seat races you should still only fill out one name per column. (In the past, you would have marked two or three names in a column.)

Where can I get more information?

The best place for help: voteminneapolis.org.

This is the city’s one-stop shop for information regarding ranked-choice voting. There’s a section for frequently-asked questions, another primer on how to fill out a ballot and a section on what not to do. There also is a lengthy explainer on how the ballots are counted — good for those who enjoy mathematics.