Tune up city election laws in Minneapolis, St. Paul

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • November 7, 2013 - 5:59 PM

It’s telling that less than 24 hours after the city election polls closed Tuesday, the Minneapolis Charter Commission renewed its motion of last spring to raise the ballot-access filing fees for city office-seekers. The current $20 fee should go to $500 for mayor and $250 for City Council, matching their levels in St. Paul, the commission recommended Wednesday.

This time, the City Council — either this year’s lame-duck members or next year’s newcomers — should pay heed. A higher filing fee is one of several adjustments in city election ordinances and procedures that increasingly appeared to be in order Thursday as the painstaking tabulation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) ballots proceeded through a second full day with the finish line for down-ballot races not yet in sight.

A mayoral election featuring 35 candidates may have been a diverting novelty. But it isn’t in keeping with Minneapolitans’ serious-minded approach to self-governance. The mayoral field’s overpopulation and the similarity of many minor candidates’ vote totals are the main culprits for delay in determining the election’s results. A higher filing fee will do much to correct that problem in future elections.

Weaknesses are also evident in Minneapolis’ manner of tabulating RCV ballots. It relies on human rather than automated second-choice sorting of defeated candidates’ ballots. That’s because no software can do the job that meets the requisite federal and state standards for certification, City Clerk Casey Carl explained. That obstacle should be overcome before the next city election — and given the long lead time required, that will require action soon.

A tuneup is also needed in the ordinance defining when a candidate is deemed “mathematically impossible to be elected.” The narrow definition in current law prevented elections officials from eliminating a batch of low vote-getters in one round of tabulation. Instead, one loser at a time was eliminated, and his or her supporters’ ballots were laboriously sorted by their second and, if need be, third choices.

A better approach might be to set a threshold, say 500 votes (nearly 80,000 were cast on Tuesday), for automatic sorting and counting by second choices. If that threshold had been in place for this election, first-choice ballots cast for 25 of the 35 mayoral candidates could have been sorted and retabulated Tuesday night — and by Wednesday night, Betsy Hodges likely would have been not just mayor-elect-apparent, but mayor-elect.

A review of postelection procedures is also in order in St. Paul. There, the outcome of the only City Council race on this year’s ballot, a special election in the First Ward, won’t be known until RCV sorting and retabulating are done next week. Ramsey County officials, who administer St. Paul elections, say that postelection duties in other jurisdictions take precedent. They shouldn’t. Voters and candidates deserve prompt determination of an election’s results, whether or not RCV was employed.

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