Minneapolis probably won't be ready to use a new voter-approved multiple-choice voting system in next year's election, the city's top election official said Friday.

"I don't believe that the city of Minneapolis will be ready for a ranked-choice voting election with equipment in 2009," said Election Director Cindy Reichert in an interview after giving the City Council a status report.

The system, also called instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank three candidates for an office in order of preference. City voters approved it in 2006 for use in 2009, unless the council adopts an ordinance that spells out why the city isn't ready.

The lengthy schedule for getting the equipment bought, certified by federal and state authorities and delivered makes instant-runoff voting unlikely in 2009, Reichert said.

Fair Vote presses for 2009

She drew a rebuttal from Jean Massey, executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota, which supports ranked voting. She said the city needs to speed up seeking proposals from equipment makers. The council's Elections Committee directed Reichert to start that work and report back in mid-April.

"There could be hiccups that prevent [2009] but we need to proceed and do everything we can to make that happen," said Massey.

She suggested that the city consider renting equipment for 2009 or using centralized scanners that do the calculations that identify winners from the preference ballots.

Elections Committee Chair Elizabeth Glidden said that the voters' mandate requires the city to exhaust the possibilities for holding instant-runoff voting in 2009 before postponing it until 2013 city elections.

"This is a very challenging time frame," she said. "There is a slight chance that there could be a solution for us."

Possible, but not pretty

One solution is the hand-counting of ballots, as San Francisco did last year. But that could be a daunting process taking days, given the nearly 71,000 votes cast in the city's last election. Glidden said that's a policy decision for the council, but that hand-counting would likely increase errors.

"Most election directors I talk to say that is not a preferred direction," she said.

Another possibility is to use centralized scanners to read and aggregate the multiple votes. But they're not likely to arrive for 2009, Reichert said, and that method might delay results until after election night is over.

That's a delay Massey is willing to accept. "We could wait a night or four years," she said.

Fair Vote is pushing the city to consider one brand of equipment that's well into the lengthy federal certification process.

But Reichert said that equipment could only be used for city elections, given that the city uses Hennepin County machines that wouldn't be compatible with that brand. Moreover, even clearing the lengthy certification hurdle still leaves a long process of taking proposals, negotiating a deal, developing software for multi-seat Minneapolis elections and producing the equipment, she said.

The city needs to know whether it will use instant-runoff voting by the time that election filing begins next year, usually the first half of July.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438