An unusual, newfangled method of casting and counting ballots is coming to Minneapolis this fall.

For the first time, city voters will have to rank up to three candidates in the order they prefer them for each contest. If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, second-choice (and possibly third-choice) ballots will come into play.

The Minnesota Supreme Court cleared the way for ranked-choice voting on Nov. 3 in a decision that also jump-starts the push to use it in St. Paul and beyond.

In a decision released Thursday, the court rejected a challenge to the new voting method brought by the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which questioned the constitutionality of having voters rank candidates in the order they prefer them.

Minneapolis this fall will become the largest city after San Francisco, where ranked-choice voting debuted in 2004, to employ the voting method. Advocates argue that it saves money, lessens rancor among candidates, promotes the election of candidates backed by a majority and not merely a plurality of voters, and helps minorities gain representation.

Voters will rank up to three candidates in the order they prefer them for each contest. But the city's election machines will count only first-choices this year, meaning potentially lengthy hand counting will be needed if second-choice rankings of some voters are needed to pick a winner. San Francisco's 2004 tabulation of results was hampered by a software problem, but systems needed to machine-count all voter choices haven't been certified yet for use in Minnesota.

Will St. Paul be next?

The decision also will spark a new push in St. Paul for having voters rank candidates in order of preference. A petition campaign for a referendum was blunted last year when the council's legal adviser expressed doubts about the method's constitutionality. Ranking candidates, also called instant-runoff voting (IRV), is being considered in Hopkins and Duluth as well.

For Minneapolis voters, the new method means they will need to learn a new way of voting. When vote-counting begins, election workers will count the first-choice votes for candidates, and if a candidate in a single-seat election gains a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate is elected.

If none of the candidates gets a majority, the lowest-ranking candidates are eliminated in ensuing rounds and the second-choice votes cast by voters who chose the eliminated candidates are added to the first-choice votes for the remaining candidates.

A lower threshold and a more complex vote-shifting regimen are used for multi-seat elections, such as those filling the three citywide Park Board seats or two citywide Board of Estimate and Taxation seats. But for multi-seat elections like the three Park Board seats, voters won't have the traditional three equal votes but will have to rank three candidates in order of preference -- something those who participated in a recent test election found confusing.

A public relations campaign to prepare voters for the change is scheduled to roll out in August. The city also has hired former Hennepin County auditor Patrick O'Connor, whose duties included overseeing county elections, to fill its vacant election supervisor position on an interim basis starting Monday.

The state Supreme Court's expedited ruling affirmed a January decision by Hennepin County District Judge George McGunnigle. He rejected the Voters Alliance's arguments that ranked-choice voting infringes on an individual's right to vote, right of association and due process.

"We are extremely happy that the Minnesota Supreme Court has provided voters with certainty. ... This is a great day for Minneapolis voters," said Elizabeth Glidden, chair of the City Council's Elections Committee.

Voters gave the IRV proposal 65 percent support in a 2006 referendum, and the City Council plans to use it in November's elections for mayor, City Council and two city boards.

But a petition signed by more than 5,300 people to hold a referendum in St. Paul on adopting IRV stalled last year when the St. Paul City Council refused to put it on the ballot after City Attorney John Choi said that IRV was probably unconstitutional.

The St. Paul council passed a resolution saying it would reconsider if the Minneapolis law were deemed constitutional. Melvin Carter III, a St. Paul council supporter of IRV, said Thursday that he will introduce a resolution soon that would put the question on the 2009 ballot.

Hopkins will be watching

Hopkins also has been awaiting the court's ruling and will watch how the Minneapolis election proceeds before its charter commission again considers IRV next year, according to Assistant City Manager Jim Genellie.

Duluth supporters of IRV are also organizing for a petition drive to be launched later this year, according to Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, which advocates for IRV. She said the court "blazed a path that every community in our state can follow toward better elections and a stronger democracy."

Andy Cilek, executive director of the alliance that fought IRV in court, said it is exploring the possibilities of a federal appeal and on working with other anti-IRV groups to try to set a national legal precedent. But Minneapolis plans to go ahead without waiting on those legal moves.

"The Minnesota Supreme Court just declared via their ruling that it's OK for a voter to have no idea if the ballot he casts will actually have the effect he intends it to have," Cilek said. "The court by judicial activism -- overturning 100 years of constitutional precedent -- has just legalized disenfranchisement."

The court, however, found key distinctions between the voting methods employed in Minneapolis and a 1915 case in which the high court found unconstitutional a Duluth ranking procedure in which candidates could accumulate more than one vote per voter. It also said that because the Minneapolis legal challenge was prospective for a law not yet used, it faced a high burden of proof -- that it caused an undue burden on the right to vote -- and that the alliance suit didn't meet that requirement.

In St. Paul, IRV proponents had threatened to sue the council, saying it didn't have the authority to say what was or wasn't constitutional, but decided to help out on the Minneapolis case instead.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky has sent several letters to the St. Paul City Council outlining potential problems with the system, including higher costs, lack of certified voting equipment and different procedures because county and school board elections wouldn't use instant-runoff voting.

Staff writer Chris Havens contributed to this report. Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438