Instant runoff voting exercises election judge fingers

Instant runoff voting is also called ranked-choice voting, because it allows voters to rank the candidates for an office in order of preference. So you still get to pick the candidate you like the most, but you can also indicate which one your second and third choices.

Minneapolis voters approved instant runoff voting in 2006. The new system won't affect races for the Legislature, Congress or the school board. It applies only to Minneapolis municipal offices, like mayor and city council. Those seats come up for election this fall.

So starting last week, Minneapolis began testing its procedures. The held held a mock election to gather feedback on the newly designed ballots. Then they had some experienced election judges take a crack at counting the votes.

Counting these ballots is a multi-step process. First you count everybody's first choice for a given race. And if no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, you eliminate the candidate in last place. Then you redistribute those votes the voters' second choice. You keep on eliminating candidates and redistributing votes until someone gets a majority.

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This year Minneapolis election judges will have to do most of that counting by hand.

"We would love to have machines to do this all for us," Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert said, but the vote counting machines Minneapolis uses are only capable of tallying the first choice votes.

Protect those fingers
Rubber finger tip protectors sit in a pile in front of Jane Schallert. She and other Minneapolis election judges will surely need them come November, when they have to count their first election under the city's new instant runoff voting system. IRV ballots must be counted by hand this year, because the vote counting machines Minneapolis uses are not up to the task.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

So unless there's a winner in the first round, it's on to hand counting.

"There is no equipment currently on the market that does what we need it to do that is federally certified," Reichert said. Minnesota state law requires machines to meet federal guidelines.

The hand counting will not happen on election night. Judges will get a good night's sleep and start the next morning.

Reichert is not ready to predict how long it will take to count up all the votes, but the practice run should give her some clues.

"Once we get that process down that we're as efficient as we feel we can be, we'll be able to then do projections and let people know how long we think it's going to take," she said.

So far, Minneapolis election judges have spent two days counting just 600 mock ballots. 70,000 people voted in the city's last municipal election four years ago. Of course, election officials will have refined their methods by the time election day rolls around, and there will be many more hands on deck in a real election than in the make believe one.

But the test election isn't over. In fact, the biggest challenge for the election judges comes today, when the tackle the multi-seat races, like the park board, where there's more than one winner. Applying instant runoff voting to those races is much more complicated. They have to use a mathematical formula to calculate fractions of votes -- and it's not just halves or thirds, either. They could be dealing with thousandths of a vote.

Several other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, use instant runoff voting. But Cambridge, Mass. is the only one that uses it for multi-seat elections. And they use a different method for calculating the results that doesn't involve fractions. Scotland uses the same method as Minneapolis chose, but they have machines to do the counting there.

"We're actually the first jurisdiction in the world that will be doing a hand count using the 'Weighted Inclusive Gregory Method of Single Transferable Vote,'" Reichert said.

By the next municipal election in 2013, Reichert expects the city will have federally approved equipment that can do the counting.

Instant runoff voting does face one final hurdle in Minneapolis. A group is challenging the system as unconstitutional. Minnesota Supreme Court hears oral arguments in that case on Wednesday.

But unless that case succeeds, or the Minneapolis City Council reverses course and delays the rollout of instant runoff voting, Minneapolis election judges will be counting votes by hand this November.