St. Paul voters will have a lot to learn for the 2011 city elections, and officials still are trying to figure out how to teach them.

It's the first year ranked-choice voting will be used to choose City Council members. The council is putting together an ordinance that spells out how it will work, and once that's settled, there will be a campaign to inform voters about the change.

"That's a challenge," said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's elections manager, who also runs St. Paul's elections. "We're going to have to make sure voters understand both methods."

All seven City Council seats are up, as well as four seats on the school board. Nearly all of the City Council members are running again; Council Member Pat Harris still is deciding.

With ranked-choice voting, there are no primaries because all candidates go on the general election ballot and voters rank them by preference. The method applies only to mayoral and council races in St. Paul, not to school or county elections.

The primary for the school board election will be Aug. 9. That's also the first day of the filing period for council races.

Council members will hold a workshop Jan. 5 to learn more about ranked-choice voting and the best way to implement it. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for that day, too.

Mansky and the city attorney's office will be advising the council on the change.

How ranked-choice works

The idea of ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, got a mixed reaction from the council when it was introduced a couple of years ago.

Supporters said the method can save money by eliminating the need for primaries. They also say it improves representation, increases turnout, and promotes more positive and informative campaigns.

Opponents criticized ranked-choice voting for being complicated and expensive, and for leaving voters out.

St. Paul voters approved the new method in 2009.

If a candidate can hit the threshold of 50 percent of total votes cast, plus one vote, then he or she wins outright. If not, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. The second-place votes on that candidate's ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates, and so on until a winner is declared.

Mansky predicts most of the races in 2011 won't need a second round, based on past election results.

Voters will see a different ballot. Mansky envisions the city races at the top, with an explanation on how ranked-choice voting works. The traditional school board ballot language would go below. He wants both methods to be on the same page to avoid someone overlooking a race, although that might not be possible if a lot of candidates run for council.

Mansky said council members also will need to decide how many candidates voters should rank. The current proposed ordinance says a ballot "must allow as many rankings as practical."

Mansky said he would recommend a limit of two rankings. "The more people who are ranked, the longer it will take us to reallocate the vote totals," he said. "The more time we take, the more this will cost."

A typical city general election costs about $250,000.

Ramsey County is set to spend about $1.3 million on new voting machines to be ready for 2013 elections. Mansky doesn't think the new machines will be capable of reallocating votes, so he wants to create a system of hand counting. He said he will propose raising filing fees to help offset the cost of the manual system.

In 2009, Minneapolis became the first Minnesota city to use ranked-choice voting in about 50 years. Most voters who took part in a postelection survey said that they found it relatively easy, although 40 percent said they didn't list more than one choice. Hand-counting delayed some results by more than two weeks, but that wasn't as long some election officials had feared. The counting of lower-ranking choices failed to reverse the order in any single-seat race. The system cost more because of increased education of voters and the hand count, and some of those costs will continue even if automatic tabulation is available in the next election.

Redistricting in St. Paul

Also in 2011, St. Paul will go through the once-a-decade redistricting process that looks at census numbers and adjusts ward boundaries if needed.

The purpose is to create equal representation on the council for all city voters. On Monday, the St. Paul Charter Commission will begin that process. Any changes to ward boundaries is likely to be finalized in late spring.

Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this story. Chris Havens • 612-673-4148