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Instant runoff voting FAQ

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IRV Video
MPR Video/Curtis Gilbert

Instant runoff voting has gone from theory to reality here in Minnesota. Minneapolis holds its first election using the alternative voting system on Tuesday, and St. Paul residents will see a question on their ballot asking whether they want to switch to instant runoff voting, too. 

Instant runoff voting advocates are pushing for more Minnesota cities to follow suit, with the eventual goal of using it for statewide elections. Here are some frequently asked questions about it.

What is instant runoff voting?

Also called ranked choice voting, instant runoff voting gives voters the opportunity to rank the candidates for a given office in order of preference -- first choice, second choice, third choice, etc.

How are the votes counted?

Unlike traditional voting where whoever gets the most votes wins, instant runoff rules require winners to get a majority -- more than 50 percent of the vote. To achieve that, the ballots are counted in a series of rounds. How it works (video)

To begin, election judges count up all the first-choice votes. If no candidate has a majority, then they eliminate the candidate in last place. Everyone who had voted for that candidate has their vote moved to their second-choice candidate. This process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority. 

In races with multiple winners like Minneapolis' Board of Estimate and Taxation and the at-large Park Board seats, the vote counting is more complicated. It involves long division. This video explains how it works. How it works (video)

In both cases, there are no primary elections to thin the field of candidates, because the instant runoff system essentially combines the primary and the general election into a single election.

Why is Minneapolis switching to this new system?

Voters in Minneapolis will use instant runoff voting for the first time in the city's municipal elections on November 3.

Voters will be able to rank up to three candidates for mayor, city council member, Park Board and Board of Estimate and Taxation. 

Voters in Minneapolis approved the new system in a 2006 referendum. The amendment to the city charter passed by a 2-to-1 margin, and there was virtually no organized opposition to it.

Instant runoff voting will only apply to municipal elections in Minneapolis. Federal, state, county and school board offices will continue to be elected the old-fashioned way. And none of them are up for re-election this year, anyway.

How long before we know who won?

As a result of instant runoff voting, the city elections department expects it will take about 8 weeks to tally this year's election results. All the ballots must be counted by hand, because there are no vote counting machines currently certified under state law capable of tabulating them. 

The machines Minneapolis has can tabulate the first-choice votes. So, if any candidates win more than 50 percent of the first choice votes, then we'll know that on election night. 

The city will begin its hand count Wednesday, and it will tackle the wards one at a time. As it finishes each ward, it will be able to announce the winner in that city council race. 

We won't learn the winners of the citywide multi-seat races until just before Christmas. By the next city elections in 2013, city officials hope to have machines in place to do the counting for them.

What's happening in St. Paul?

St. Paul voters will decide November 3 whether to switch to instant runoff voting, too.

As in Minneapolis, it would affect only city offices -- just mayor and city council.

IRV proponents actually gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot in St. Paul last year, but the St. Paul City Council voted to delay the referendum until a lawsuit against Minneapolis was resolved.

What do instant runoff voting supporters like about this system?

Instant runoff voting supporters say our current election system doesn't work well when there are more than two candidates running for an office. That situation comes up often in Minnesota's state and federal races, because of the state's three major political parties.

Consider, for example, the 1998 gubernatorial election. Jesse Ventura won that year with only 37 percent of the vote. That means 63 percent of voters didn't vote for him. Current Gov. Tim Pawlenty was elected twice with less than a majority, and Sen. Al Franken won his recount with only 42 percent of the vote.

Minneapolis and St. Paul haven't faced this situation in municipal general elections, because both cities have had non-partisan primary elections to winnow the field down in each race. But instant runoff voting advocates point out those primary elections have chronically low turnout. They say instant runoff voting will encourage more citizens will participate, because they will only have to show up to vote once.

What do opponents say?

They say, first and foremost, that it's confusing. They say some people just aren't going to get the concept of ranking candidates and that people aren't conditioned to think about voting like that. 

If you only vote for one candidate on an instant runoff ballot, you have less voting power than someone who ranks all the candidates. And opponents worry that the people who are going to be most confused will be the elderly, the less educated and those with limited English.

They also say that primary elections play a useful purpose. By winnowing the field of candidates for each office down to the two most viable contenders, they help voters focus on their choices. Without a primary, they argue, you end up with too many candidates on the general election ballot to have a coherent debate.

Would there still be recounts?

There could be. As before, anyone who loses an election in Minneapolis could demand a recount. If they lose by less than .5 percent in the final round of counting, then the city will pay for the recount. Otherwise, the candidate pays.

Wasn't there a lawsuit about this?

The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of instant runoff voting in June. A group called the Minnesota Voters Alliance sued Minneapolis, arguing the system violated the constitutional principle of one-person-one-vote. But the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the claim lacked merit. The group has vowed a second legal challenge once the election is over, though.

Where else are they using instant runoff voting?

Not counting Minneapolis, there are six U.S. cities currently using instant runoff voting. The biggest is San Francisco. Cambridge, Mass. has used a version of instant runoff voting since 1941.

Aspen, Colo. has a referendum on the ballot this fall to get rid of instant runoff voting. So does Pierce County, Wash.