St. Paul shapes new voting system

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2011 - 8:16 PM

Nobody wants St. Paul voters to be shocked at the polls in November when they use ranked-choice voting ballots for the first time.

The City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved 12 pages of election rules, including the ability to rank up to six candidates, for the new voting system.

Now the public education begins.

The ordinance defines terms that are not used in common conversation -- examples include batch elimination, continuing candidate, duplicate ranking and exhausted ballot.

Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager, said some 90,000 households in St. Paul -- those with at least one registered voter -- will receive pamphlets explaining the system. His office also has plans to help non-English speakers.

"We're ready to go," he said.

City Council President Kathy Lantry wasn't supportive of ranked-choice voting, but wants to ensure it's done right. "I don't think it's hard, but it's different so people need to know what it looks like at the polls," she said.

Supporters say ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff, is a way to get a winner with majority backing, no matter how many candidates are running. Proponents say it allows people to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping to elect their least favorite. A voter can rank several candidates, with lower choices counting only if that voter's first pick is cast out.

The major compromise in the ordinance involved how many candidates voters would be able to rank.

Council Member Russ Stark, the sponsor, previously argued for an unlimited number of candidates to be ranked. Mansky suggested two. The sides compromised at six for now.

Under the system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets a majority of first-place votes -- 50 percent plus one vote -- in the first round, he or she wins. If nobody gets a majority, the "instant runoffs" begin. The candidate with the fewest votes is dropped, but the second-choice votes on those ballots are redistributed. The process repeats until someone gains a majority.

When Minneapolis first used the system in 2009, the voting didn't change the order of candidates in any single-seat race. Four of every 10 Minneapolis voters said in a post-election survey that they didn't bother to vote for more than one candidate, which works against the whole point of the system.

St. Paul voters approved ranked-choice voting by a 4 percentage point margin in 2009 and the vote withstood a court challenge. The St. Paul system applies only to City Council and mayoral races.

Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749

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