Elections director says instant runoff tallies could take weeks to count

Paul Ostrow
Minneapolis City Council member Paul Ostrow (center) says he thinks the city should delay implementing instant runoff voting until it can get machines to count the votes. But he says he's in the minority on the council.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Up until this year, Minneapolis residents have voted for mayor, city council, park board and other municipal offices the old fashioned way. You choose your favorite candidate and vote for him or her. Whoever gets the most votes wins. But that's all going to change.

With instant runoff voting, you can cast your ballot for a first-choice candidate, a second-choice and a third. Counting those ballots is a complicated and time-consuming process; it involves a series of rounds, called runoffs. The city's vote-counting machines will be able to help a little bit, but most of the work has to be done by hand.

Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert
Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert tells the city council that counting all the ballots under the city's new instant runoff voting system will likely take more than a month, working eight hours a day, seven days a week.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Elections director Cindy Reichert said it's impossible to predict exactly how long the counting will take.

"But the number of eight-hour shifts we would need to perform, if no races go to a runoff, maximum number of counting teams are staffed, and we improve our speed and turnout is low, the minimum number of eight-hour shifts would be 24," Reichert said.

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That's the best-case scenario, and Reichert said it's unlikely. So is the worst case scenario: 139 eight-hour shifts. Her best guess is somewhere between 30 and 60 shifts, and it's possible they could squeeze in two shifts a day.

"The time for the count is dependent on many factors; the number of ballots cast, number of races which go to the runoff, number of candidates who file, number of rounds of counting, number of teams that can be effectively supervised and the number of counting centers that can be set up in our space available," Reichert said.

The most complicated part of the counting involves so-called multiple-seat races like park board -- those are the races where the ballots used to say 'vote for two.' Under instant runoff voting you can rank up to three candidates in order of preference, and then the winners are determined by a mathematical formula called the "weighted inclusive Gregory method." The method, which involves calculating fractions of votes to the fourth decimal place, has never been used in a hand-count situation before. Because of the complexity, Reichert estimates counting just one of those races would take close to 30 shifts.

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

At the meeting, Minneapolis City Council member Paul Ostrow asked City Attorney Susan Segal whether the council could go ahead with instant runoff voting, but hold off on using it for those multi-seat races. Segal said it could not.

"It is too late now to do a charter amendment by ordinance by the council at this point in time in time for the election," Segal said.

The city council could pass an ordinance that would delay instant runoff voting for four years. But Ostrow, who supports instant runoff voting in principal, is frustrated that it's an all-or-nothing proposition.

"If I in good faith conclude that we are not ready and it's not practical to use IRV for the at-large park district seats, it sounds like I am then compelled to say that we are not ready on all the seats," Ostrow said. "I guess that's what we're stuck with."

Ostrow said, at this point, he would vote to delay instant runoff voting until there are machines to handle the counting. But he said he's in the minority on the city council.

A group called FairVote Minnesota led the charge for instant runoff voting in Minneapolis. Its executive, director Jeanne Massey, argues there's no reason to hold off on implementing the new system. She points out city voters approved the switch by an overwhelming margin in 2006.

"In accordance with the will of the voters, the difference would be waiting for how ever many days that hand count is going to take, or do we delay four years simply because we can't wait some days for a hand count election to be completed?" Massey said.

It is still possible the Minnesota Supreme Court could strike down instant runoff voting as unconstitutional. That's what it did in 1915 with another alternative voting system used in Duluth. But a lower court has ruled that the Minneapolis instant runoff voting system doesn't pose the same constitutional problems.