It's coming down to a race against the calendar to determine whether Minneapolis voters again in 2013 will wait longer and pay more to get their ranked-choice city election results.

Although advances in voting machine technology make it easier to read the ranking of voter preferences in Minneapolis, the hurdle is that needed software isn't ready or certified for ranked voting, according to election experts. That makes it problematic whether a change to speed tabulation will be in place by November, when the mayor and 25 other local offices are up for grabs.

The pace of ballot-counting will determine whether voters get results in hours or the count drags on for weeks, as it did when ranked-choice voting debuted in 2009. That year, it took Minneapolis 18 days after the election to declare the last winner because a laborious hand count was required to tally the hundreds of combinations of first, second and third choices selected by voters in a race. If there was no clear winner on first choices, the lowest candidates were eliminated and second- or third-choice votes redistributed to the remaining candidates.

Advocates say ranking candidates gives voters more choice and helps ensure that more voters support the eventual winner rather than the traditional winner-take-all approach. How fast automation can happen also has implications for a handful of cities from Duluth to Red Wing, where local officials have looked into adopting the unconventional voting system.

Minneapolis estimated two years ago that a hand count in 2013 would cost $133,000 more than an automated count, and that amount would balloon if turnout returns to normal after 2009's light voting. Races for City Council, Park and Recreation Board, and Board of Estimate and Taxation are on next year's ballot.

$5 million set aside

Hennepin County has set aside $5 million for 2013 to replace hundreds of aging precinct-level vote counters used by its cities. It's trying to accommodate the needs of Minneapolis, its only city where voters rank candidates. But accomplishing that requires cooperation by many players, according to Rachel Smith, the county's elections manager.

Smith hopes to brief the County Board by the end of January on a timeline. She hopes the county will be negotiating with one or more makers of voting systems by late winter or early spring.

Time squeeze ahead

That suggests a time squeeze, given that Assistant City Clerk Grace Wachlarowicz said the city's drop-dead date for knowing which equipment will be used is the end of March, even if it's delivered later.

Election officials are just beginning to turn their attention to the equipment purchase after wrapping up presidential election duties that have consumed most of the fall. City and county officials plan to meet soon, but Smith said that cooperation from the secretary of state's office and possibly the Legislature are needed to expedite an improvement in ranked-choice counting.

"It's a great possibility that the appropriate approvals could take place" for buying and using the new voting systems in 2013, Wachlarowicz said. "But it's a very tight timeline," she added.

Voting equipment is now much closer to meeting the needs of cities like Minneapolis, and St. Paul, which also uses rankings for city elections, said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, the leading advocate for voters ranking candidates.

Voting machines and software typically need federal certification and approval by the secretary of state.

But the secretary of state's office doesn't test new voting systems for ranked-choice voting because that's not specified in Minnesota law. So that job is likely to fall to the city, Smith said.

Software development is lagging

At least three makers have produced voting equipment that is compatible with ranked voting, but their accompanying software lags, according to Massey.

To buy voting equipment that represents at least some improvement over 2009 for ranked-choice tallying will require concerted effort by the city, county, state and perhaps the Legislature, Smith said.

Council Member Cam Gordon, who heads the council's Election Committee, said he's looking forward to huddling with Hennepin County soon on the issue.

"I'm hoping that we could get this done for the 2013 election," he said. "But if we don't get some good information early next year, my hope could change."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib