Minneapolis elections officials nearing final IRV report

Calculating ballots
Elections officials in Minneapolis are using computer spreadsheets to finish the hand count of ballots at the city's elections warehouse.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

The hand count of ballots cast in Minneapolis' first ever election using instant runoff voting is coming to a close and Minneapolis elections officials will soon start to compile a report about the city's new experience.

So far, they say the voting and counting has gone smoothly and they're on pace to finish several weeks ahead of schedule. But some interested observers are not as impressed with the city's performance.

The only buzz in the air at the Minneapolis elections warehouse is coming from the ambient hum of the fluorescent lights and mechanical systems.

Gone are the dozens of ballot counters and sorters who took a little over a week to complete their phase of the hand count. They've been replaced by just a handful of elections officials who are seated around two computer terminals quietly entering data.

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This may look boring to some, but Interim elections director Pat O'Connor has found it all fascinating. O'Connor said he's particularly interested to find that some of his assumptions about the results have been turned upside down.

For example, O'Connor expected to see a lot of write-in candidates in hotly-contested races. But it turned out there were more write-ins for races with little or no competition. In one park board race there was one candidate and 110 first choice votes for write-ins.

But the biggest surprise for O'Connor and the elections staff has been how quickly the hand count process has gone. Originally, O'Connor expected that they wouldn't be ready to announce unofficial winners until December. But they've been able to do so several weeks earlier than planned.

"We thought we had a good process in place," O'Connor said. "But I hate to sound arrogant, but we didn't have any idea just how good it was."

O'Connor is describing the city's unique counting system. Elections officials dubbed it the "Minneapolis method" because it hasn't been used anywhere else.

Ballots were first sorted into combination groupings based on first, second and third choices. Then the combinations were recorded by hand onto sheets of paper. After all the data for each race was compiled, another group of workers entered the totals into a computer spreadsheet. The results for each race were announced only after the computer program ran its calculations.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said there are problems with this process.

"I think that struck us as being both time consuming and, again, prone to making errors," Mansky said.

St. Paul is preparing to use instant runoff voting for its 2011 city elections. Recently, a group of Ramsey County elections officials crossed the river to observe the Minneapolis method.

"And without having given a whole lot of thought to this process, my initial impression would be to use the method we used to recount ballots," Mansky said.

Mansky said the traditional hand counting method provides results in days, not weeks. And he said that will help keep the costs down too.

It's likely that hand counting a St. Paul ranked choice election would go faster for other reasons. Mansky said, unlike their counterparts in Minneapolis, St. Paul voters don't elect members of boards, like the park board and board of estimate and taxation where more than one seat is available. Under ranked choice voting, these races are the most complicated and time-consuming to count.

The At-Large park board commissioner race is one of the last races to be counted. There are three seats available and candidate Bob Fine is still waiting to hear if he's won one of them. However, so far, Fine has the most votes and he's confident he'll win.

"I have a degree in math, so I understand how things work very well mathematically," Fine said. "I don't think it's possible. I would have to drop down, I would have to drop down to fourth and looking at second place votes and where they may come, I don't think it's very likely I'm going to end up dropping that far."

Some candidates had enough first choice votes on election night to be assured of a win - enough for them to hold celebrations.

"I don't know if I'll have a victory party. It's not that important. My wife may want to," Fine said. "She asked me about it the other day, she said what if we don't know until December, can I still have a party? I said you can do what you want."

The Fine family won't have to wait until December for results. City officials say all the candidates should know their fate before Thanksgiving.

The city will formally assess its first experience with instant runoff voting in a report due to be finished by the end of the year.