Minneapolis goes to court over new voting style

Iowa straw poll
The city of Minneapolis is going to court today to see if a proposed voting system, instant runoff voting, meets with the state Constitution.
Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Say you've got three candidates: Alicia Anderson, Bob Brady and Charlie Cruz.

Normally, you just vote for the candidate you like the best. If Anderson gets 33 percent of the vote, Brady gets 22 percent and Cruz gets 45 percent, Cruz wins.

Under instant runoff voting, you still get to indicate which candidate you like the best, but you also can put down which candidate you'd prefer if your first choice is out of the picture.

A mock IRV optical scan ballot
An example of what an optical scan, instant runoff ballot might look like. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of 'first choice' votes, the one receiving the fewest of those votes is eliminated. That candidate's votes are then redistributed to the others according to the voter's preferences.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

So because Charlie Cruz got less than 50 percent of the vote, he's not the winner yet. The race goes to an instant runoff. Bob Brady is out, because he came in last. If he was your first choice, your vote moves to your second choice.

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Supporters, like Minneapolis City Council member Ralph Remington, think it's a better way to vote.

"It makes more of the people's voices heard," said Remington.

It allows you to support a third-party candidate without worrying you're throwing your vote away. And Remington likes the idea that a politician can't win under instant runoff voting unless a majority of the voters support him, even if he wasn't their first choice.

"And I don't know about you, but I want any leader that I select to at least be wanted and desired by over 50 percent of the people," Remington said.

But where Remington sees a more accurate gauge of public opinion, Minneapolis City Council president Barb Johnson sees several potential problems.

"I think there actually are some fairly instructive lessons to be learned from the recount we're going through," Johnson said.

During the recount, elections officials had to scrutinize every single ballot and figure out whom the voter intended to support. The vast majority of people filled in the oval next to the candidate they wanted, just like you're supposed to.

But, there were a tiny percentage of voters who didn't follow the instructions on the ballot. They marked the ballot with an 'X' or check marks. They filled in too many ovals or made inscrutable markings on the ballot.

If the State Canvassing Board can figure out what those voters were trying to say, then their votes will still count. But in some cases, the ballots will just have to be thrown out. And Johnson worries instant runoff voting will confuse more voters.

"You see people on a fairly un-complicated system that we've been using for years and years and years still making mistakes, not being clear about who they're voting for and that sort of thing," Johnson said. "And this is going to be a whole new method of voting."

Supporters point to exit polls showing most voters in cities that have switched to instant runoff voting say they understand the new system. Eighty-seven percent of voters in San Francisco, which is the largest of the seven U.S. cities that have approved the new system, said they got it.

But that would leave 13 percent, who didn't. Johnson is especially concerned about older voters.

"I think it's confusing when you take a process that someone has used their whole life and change it," Johnson said.

The other thing Minneapolis got to experience thanks to the recount is the joy of hand-counting ballots.

The optical scan vote-counting machines Minnesota uses can't compute the winner of an instant runoff election. They can only track a voter's first choice. If the machines show no candidate with a clear majority, Johnson says there's only one way to tabulate a voter's second and third choices.

"We'll have to have hand counts, which to me is like back to the Stone Age," Johnson said.

Minneapolis instituted instant runoff voting only for municipal elections, like mayor and city council. Those elections typically see smaller turnout than a big U.S. Senate race, but hand-counting still takes time.

Jeanne Massey, who's leading the charge for Instant Runoff Voting in Minnesota, acknowledges Minneapolis residents probably won't know all the winners on election night.

"But within a day or two days, we should be able to have that information," Massey said.

And just like Johnson, Massey can spin the Minnesota U.S. Senate race into an argument for her side. She points to the intensely negative campaign between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. She says with instant runoff voting, candidates have less incentive to bash each other.

"Because they want to make sure that if a voter doesn't choose them for a first choice, they may for a second choice," Massey said.

But before instant runoff voting can get its first Minnesota field test, it needs to clear a major hurdle. Opponents claim the system violates the Minnesota constitution and they'll make that case today at the Hennepin County Courthouse.