Midway between Minneapolis city elections, it's looking more doubtful that the city will have new equipment in place for 2013 balloting to avoid another lengthy hand count of voter choices under ranked-choice voting.

In 2009, it took 18 days after the election and lots more money for the last winner to be declared after a hand count of second-choice ballots determined the outcome.

Hennepin County's election director said she hopes the county can buy new voting equipment in late 2012 or early 2013. Asked how optimistic she was that such equipment could count the ranked-choice ballots, Rachel Smith responded, "It's certainly possible. ... I'm still optimistic that we'll have something in place for Minneapolis."

But she conceded that system may not automate all of the counting required under ranked-choice when the first choices of voters don't generate a winner.

In Ramsey County, which runs St. Paul elections, election manager Joe Mansky said he doubts Minneapolis will have machines in place for 2013 that could count ranked choices automatically.

"I'm not sure there is enough time to get from where they are to where they need to be," Mansky said after recently finishing St. Paul's only hand-counted race in one day. He's recommending against automating the counting of ranked votes in St. Paul, partly because he feels a manual count is more transparent to candidates and the public.

Ranked-choice voting is used in both Minneapolis and, this month for the first time, St. Paul. Voters rank municipal candidates in order of preference, and the second-choice votes of also-rans can determine the winner. Red Wing and Duluth are considering having voters rank choices.

The process of aggregating the choices of voters requires software that hasn't finished the lengthy federal certification process, much less earned state approval.

That has prompted Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota, the prime advocacy group supporting ranked-choice voting, to suggest that if the federal certification process creates delays, the state should consider alternative methods to achieve the required federal certification..She pointed to Maine, one of the states to do so, which helped the city of Portland automate its ranked-choice count.

“There are different ways this could be done, including creating a state certification process through a rules making process, entering into an interstate compact that would allow Minnesota to rely on standards in other states that match federal certification requirements,” Massey said.

Complicated by differences

Differences in how Minneapolis and St. Paul conduct elections and count votes complicate the purchase of new voting equipment by several metro counties that have been working cooperatively toward that.

For example, St. Paul voters rank candidates for council races in one odd-year election and for mayor two years later. All are single-seat contests, with one winner for each race. In contrast, city elections in Minneapolis are every four years. Voters pick a mayor, 13 council members, nine Park Board members in six district and one at-large contest, and two members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

The park at-large seat and two tax board seats are multiple-seat elections in which several people are elected, with different thresholds for winning than single-seat contests like mayor or council.

The extra cost of ranked-choice voting in 2009 in Minneapolis was estimated at $345,000 more than the cost of the traditional primary and general elections it replaced in 2005. A hefty share was for the space and workers for counting by hand.

"The difficulty is, thus far, we have not identified equipment that's far enough down the certification path that we feel that confident that we could obtain ranked-choice voting-compatible equipment by the end of [2012]," said city clerk Casey Carl.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438