Under the threat of a lawsuit, the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday voted against putting a petition-driven question on the November ballot that would ask voters if they want to change the way they vote in municipal elections.

More than 5,300 people signed a petition to put instant-runoff voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, on the ballot.

It's a controversial method, and prevailing council members said it would probably violate the state's constitution.

Minneapolis adopted the system but is currently involved in a lawsuit over its constitutionality.

The group pushing for the change, the Better Ballot Campaign, said it's not the council's role to decide what is or isn't constitutional. Last week, the group hinted it might sue if its request was denied.

"You can't go wrong respecting the voice of the people," said Jay Benanav, an attorney representing the group and a former council member.

The council heard from both sides before voting. One half of the council chambers was filled with instant-runoff supporters, many wearing orange shirts.

The council voted 5 to 1 to approve a resolution that keeps the question off the ballot. Council Member Russ Stark voted against that resolution, and Council Member Lee Helgen was absent.

Council members also approved a separate resolution that calls for the question to be put on the ballot if instant-runoff voting is found to be acceptable constitutionally.

What's the constitutionality?

Stark said there isn't any certainty on the constitutionality of the method.

It makes sense to wait and see how the Minneapolis court case plays out before taking action, Council Member Pat Harris said.

Council Member Melvin Carter III, who supports instant-runoff voting, took the same position.

Better Ballot officials submitted 7,168 names a few weeks ago requesting the issue be put on the ballot. The total number of verified signatures was 5,386 -- 5,098 were needed.

Instant-runoff voting requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gains a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and the second-place votes cast by supporters of that candidate are added to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate gains a majority.

Proponents say it ensures a candidate wins by a majority and puts more candidates in front of more voters because turnout is higher at general elections. They also say it saves money because it eliminates primaries.

Opponents say it gives people more than one vote. They challenge the constitutionality of instant-runoff voting and say it limits debate by eliminating primaries.

After the council voted, a few instant-runoff supporters stood up with tape over their mouths.

Will there be a lawsuit?

"Maybe," Benanav said. "We're evaluating."

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542