So, Minneapolis, how long are you willing to wait for the winner in next year's city elections?

Two large West Coast jurisdictions that use the ranked-choice voting system that Minneapolis will use in 2009 needed several days before voters were relatively certain of who won in all of the races this month. The results were complicated by large numbers of absentee or early votes.

But with Minneapolis planning to offer voters the chance to rank their top three candidates in elections next year, those jurisdictions had one advantage the city lacks: a fully automated vote count.

Minneapolis plans to use its ballot-scanning machines to determine whether any candidate hits the necessary threshold for election on first-choice rankings.

But if second- or third-choice votes are needed to determine a winner, Election Director Cindy Reichert has recommended counting by hand. That's after the city rejected both proposals this year from companies that supply vote-counting equipment for the multiple-choice rankings.

"That is just unbelievable," said Auditor Pat McCarthy of Pierce County, Wash., when told of plans to hand-count here. "Have you ever tried a hand-count for a ranked-choice voting vote?"

The Pierce County Council is likely to put a proposal before voters next year to scrap ranked-choice voting in favor of a revamped primary system, according to Council Chairman Terry Lee.

San Francisco's been there

In 2003, San Francisco was faced with a situation similar to Minneapolis' when rank-choice voting was scheduled to make its debut but the city didn't have certified equipment and software. Faced with hand-counting as an alternative, the city's election director delayed using the new voting method by a year, a decision that withstood a court challenge.

But with the U.S. Senate race recount involving Al Franken and Norm Coleman occupying her time, Reichert said this week that issues related to ranked-choice voting are "the furthest thing from my mind right now."

Minneapolis is to become the first city in the state in which voters rank their top three candidates. The change was approved in a 2006 charter referendum, but a legal challenge is pending.

In ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff, candidates must top a 50 percent threshold to win a single-seat office such as mayor. If no candidate wins a majority, then the lowest-polling candidate is eliminated and second-choice votes cast on that candidate's ballots are apportioned to the candidates for whom they were indicated. The process of elimination and apportionment is repeated until a candidate tops 50 percent. For multiseat elections, such as Park Board, a lower threshold and a slightly more complicated method is used.

Ranked-choice voting advocates say that the process improves voter participation and reduces rancor in electioneering. That's because candidates compete to be voters' backup choices.

The system also saves money, advocates say, because it eliminates the primary election that typically cuts a crowded field to two candidates.

In San Francisco and Pierce County, first-choice votes didn't produce a winner in several contests on election night, meaning that voters waited several days as more absentee ballots were counted and the ranking software ran again.

Early ballots make up most of those cast in Washington, and nearly half of the count in San Francisco. Absentee balloting is only at about 9 percent in Minnesota, but it is growing.

In Pierce County, McCarthy saw the new system as an election official and as a candidate. Based on hand counts done there to verify equipment and software, she predicted that a full hand-count will take a long time. "That is a huge, huge nightmare," she said. "I wouldn't want to do it."

No worries

But one ranked-choice voting advocate, Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, responds that such concerns are nonsense. Two North Carolina communities hand-count ranked-choice votes. Ireland routinely counts its votes by hand in a ranked system, and has its results by the close of the day after an election, he said. But when San Francisco considered a hand count in 2003, election officials demurred, saying they feared a "meltdown," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Minneapolis advocates for ranked-choice voting say that hand counts won't be difficult in most races, because the first ballots for which second-choice votes would be counted are those cast for candidates who gained the fewest votes.

The more badly splintered an election is, the more candidates would need to be dropped for a remaining candidate to hit the threshold to be elected.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438