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Ranked voting comes to St. Paul City Council election

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Ranked voting
Brian Kimmes, voter education coordinator for FairVote Minnesota, hands out literature on the ranked voting system at a bus stop in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In Tuesday's election, voters will test a new kind of selection system. For the first time, they'll be able to rank their choices for the St. Paul City Council.

Voters can pick the candidate they most want, but also select second and third choices, and so on. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are redistributed to the voters' second choice. The process, also known as instant runoff, continues until someone gets a majority.

That means for some of the more competitive races, knowing who the winner is could take about a week after the election.

As the morning workday crowd streams into downtown St. Paul by the busload, Brian Kimmes is waiting for them.

"Here's some information on voting this year in St. Paul. There's a new system."

Kimmes, a burly guy with a thick beard, hands out pamphlets at a busy bus stop. He works for FairVote Minnesota, the driving force behind the new voting system, which supporters say eliminates costly primary elections and gives voters more choice. It was approved in St. Paul by a referendum two years ago.

Even though Election Day is just days away, Kimmes said many people still have questions.

"It's just kind of like, 'Well, what is it?' Most people have heard something about ranked voting, but not quite sure how it works," Kimmes said. "The most common question we get is, 'What exactly is my second choice for?' And the best way to describe it is if your first choice doesn't win."

Confused? Kimmes said you don't really need to worry about it.

"The most important thing I remind the voters is, they don't have to do the counting. The only thing the voter needs to do on Election Day is know who their first, second, and third choice is, etc., and know they fill in an oval for first choice, an oval for second choice, and understand their second choice can never harm their first choice. Their first choice will always get their vote as long as they're viable."

Only three out of the city's seven wards have three or more candidates. Reallocation of votes could come into play in the first, second and third wards.

John Mannillo is one of four candidates vying for a seat opening up in the 3rd Ward. What does he think about ranked voting?

"I think I need the second choices," he joked.

As one of the underdogs in a showdown against Chris Tolbert, Eve Stein, and Tylor Slinger, Mannillo has incorporated ranked choice into his encounters with voters.

Mannillo has an unusual campaign strategy.

"I'm hoping that people make me their second choice. I do ask that at the doors," Mannillo said.

"If someone tells me they're voting for Eve Stein, I say to them, 'She's a nice lady. I respect that. And please vote for me second,' "

The voting machines won't change and will still be familiar, said Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky.

"We'll count those electronically at the polling place. We'll have those results ready on our election night on our website as we always do. What we're unable to do electronically is the reallocation if that step becomes necessary," Mansky said.

Vote reallocation becomes necessary only if there is no first choice majority winner on election night. The voting machines aren't capable of counting beyond the first round. If there's no first choice majority winner, election officials will tally the ballots by hand the Monday following Election Day. Mansky said the tally will look just like a recount, with piles of ballots stacked on tables and open to observation by members of the public and the candidates. Unofficial results should be available later that day.

Ranked voting debuted in Minneapolis in 2009 with little fanfare.

The new system draws mixed reaction in St. Paul. Dave Thune, 2nd Ward City Council member, is reminding confused voters that they don't have to choose more than one candidate; they can simply vote for him. Because there was no primary election, the race remains crowded, he said.

One of Thune's four challengers, Jim Ivey, said the new system puts him in a better position to take on a veteran councilman.

"As the Green Party candidate, it's quite difficult to convince somebody to vote for you because they've got horror stories: 'I feel like I might be wasting my vote by voting for the Green Party because you can't possibly win. Or if I vote for you, I might accidentally elect a candidate I don't want because I've split the vote,' " Ivey said.

Ivey is telling people they can now vote for their first choice, without worrying about an inadvertent spoiler.

To get voters primed for the new ballot, elections officials have been mailing out instructions, visiting nursing homes, and advertising on buses. They expect the voting to be simple, but said they'll have plenty of extra ballots and election judges on hand for voters who need assistance.