Three weeks ahead of the most contentious Minneapolis election in a generation, many city voters are still grappling with what was once a fairly simple question: How will the next mayor be determined?

Education campaigns are ramping up across the city to explain ranked-choice voting, a process of tabulating voters’ second and third preferences that was approved in a 2006 referendum.

It will get its first major test on Nov. 5, with 35 candidates vying to succeed outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak — only about eight of them are waging structured campaigns — and seven of 13 City Council seats in serious contention.

The procedure was used just once: in 2009’s sleepy city election where Rybak faced no serious opposition. “The majority of people have no idea where this came from or why,” said Anissa Hollingshead, head of voter outreach for the city, who has been explaining the process all over the city.

The new method means the next mayor likely will be many voters’ second choice, which sets up a complicated calculus for campaigns that contact and cajole even voters who don’t support their candidate as the top pick.

“If they tell us that they’ve made up their mind, or they’re not quite sure, then we can go into a further discussion about” ranked-choice voting, said Patrick Layden, campaign manager for City Council Member Don Samuels.

It already has fundamentally changed the race by eliminating a primary, meaning that 35 candidates will appear on the ballot. It also has revealed some interesting alliances between candidates who have been asked to state their second and third choices.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters can mark their second and third preferences in the event that their first-choice candidate does not advance in a multiround process of elimination. (The candidate with the fewest votes, or candidates who cannot mathematically win, are eliminated in each round.)

Those second- and third-choice votes are distributed to candidates who remain in contention until someone surpasses 50 percent of the vote or two candidates remain and the leader wins.

A common misconception is that listing different candidates as second- and third-choice preferences will somehow diminish or jeopardize a voter’s top choice. That’s not the case, since second and third choices are considered only if a voters’ first-choice candidate is knocked out of contention.

Explaining all this to voters can be a tough task. “The devil is in the details,” said independent candidate Cam Winton. “And to accurately explain the details — to answer questions about the details — for each given voter, that’s a five-minute conversation.”

‘I’m kind of lost’

At a recent education session held during a meeting of high-rise public housing tenants, confused voters peppered city staff members with questions about how the process works. What is the significance of my second- and third-choice votes? Does ranked-choice voting increase the chance that Captain Jack Sparrow, a registered candidate for mayor, could win? Do I have to rank three candidates? “I’m kind of lost,” a woman named Bertha confided to a man sitting beside her.

Voters do not have to rank three candidates if they choose not to. Most campaigns and ranked-choice voting supporters discourage that, however, since voters are ceding an opportunity to influence the election if their first choice falls out of contention.

The procedural details caused a dust-up recently when candidate Mark Andrew said at a debate that “we’re going to be probably encouraging people to ‘bullet ballot,’ but maybe not.”

That refers to choosing only one candidate, bypassing the ranking process. His comment spurred a fundraising e-mail from Council Member Betsy Hodges’ campaign, though Andrew spokeswoman Marion Greene said it was a “joke that just bombed.”

“It’s not a strategy at all that we’re even discussing or thinking about,” Greene said.

Budding alliance?

Apart from endorsing the ranked-choice voting method, candidates have shied away from stating their own second- and third-choice votes.

In response to a Star Tribune inquiry, however, most candidates did outline which other candidates are among their top choices. That informal survey of the top eight candidates revealed a budding, though perhaps uncoordinated, alliance among Hodges, Samuels and Winton — all of whom listed each other as a top choice.

Only one candidate, Jackie Cherryhomes, listed Mark Andrew as a top choice.

(See the full responses at

City officials have rolled out a revamped website,, to help explain the process. And they will mail out a voter information guide to city residents, run public service announcements on cable television and staff up with extra election judges on Election Day.

“I think we’ve put more resources into voter outreach and education than ever before,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, chair of the city’s Elections Committee.

Ranked-choice voting advocate Jeanne Massey, with FairVote Minnesota, is a constant presence at events around the city. FairVote presses for ranked-choice voting in communities nationwide; 11 now use it, including St. Paul.

Massey said that ranking is increasingly familiar to people, but that “I think a minimal level of understanding of the tabulation process is important so they know why to rank.”

FairVote’s surveys show that despite its ground game, most voters will get information through mass media. The group is taking all opportunities to get the message out, such as appearing on Somali radio and television programs.