Ranked-choice voting gets mostly good reviews

Executive director of FairVote Minnesota Jeanne Massey talks with the media during the live stream of the counting of mayoral votes cast by Minneapolis voters in the basement of Minneapolis City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. (Amanda Snyder for MPR)

This year's election in Minneapolis was the first major test of ranked-choice voting in Minnesota and the first time it came into play in a hotly contested mayor's race.

So far, most of the reviews are good, even though Minneapolis still hasn't finished counting the votes.

Most voters took the time to pick up to three candidates -- first, second and third choices -- allowed by the Minneapolis ranked choice system, preliminary data from the Secretary of State's office show. Nearly 88 percent indicated a second choice, while almost 77 percent used all three choices.

The election was a "resounding success,” said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, which advocates for ranked-choice voting. "The voters said it was simple. They were ready. They went in prepared,” Massey said. “So in spite of the 35-candidate ballot, it did not deter or intimidate the voters."

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The voting system also appears to have affected the candidates' political strategies.

There were still attacks and private animosity between campaigns. But overall, it was a remarkably positive campaign. Candidates said they didn't want to alienate each other's supporters for fear of losing out on second-choice votes. At the end of their final debate, they even sang “Kumbaya.”

The lack of rancor was refreshing, said outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak.

“That says a lot about the city,” said Rybak, who added that this ranked-choice experiment worked.

Media and party supporters watch a live stream of the counting of mayoral votes cast by Minneapolis voters in the basement of Minneapolis City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. (Amanda Snyder for MPR)

Some observers have complained all the positivity made it difficult to distinguish between the candidates. Rybak rejected that argument.

"People aren't dumb,” he said. “Give them two positive reasons about why to be for you. Somebody else makes their case. People can compare and contrast without ripping each other's esophagus out.”

The system still has its critics.

Ranked-choice advocates claimed the system would save money, increase voter participation and ensure candidates were elected with support from a majority of voters but none of those claims has proven true, said Devin Rice, who sits on the Minneapolis Charter Commission.

"It's costing us more,” Rice said. “Turnout is not increasing, and majority outcomes are not necessarily happening."

As with traditional balloting, it's possible to win a ranked-choice election without reaching more than 50 percent support. But it's too early to know whether that happened this year.

Turnout was about 80,000 this year in Minneapolis. There were almost 90,000 ballots cast during the city's last seriously contested mayor's race in 2005. But turnout in Minneapolis municipal elections has been dropping for the last 20 years.

City Clerk Casey Carl answers questions from the media about ranked choice voting on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 at City Hall. Behind him, a live stream of counting votes cast by Minneapolis voters started shortly after noon in the basement of Minneapolis City Hall. (Amanda Snyder for MPR)

Ranked-choice voting was supposed to save money by eliminating the primary election, but so far the costs have actually been running higher, thanks to increased voter education efforts and the expense of counting the ballots.

Tallying the votes is also taking much longer than expected. Election officials aren't counting paper ballots by hand like they did four years ago. They're using a computer spreadsheet. But it's still a pretty low-tech process.

"We don't have any algorithms or any mathematical equations built into the spreadsheet,” said city clerk Casey Carl.

Carl had originally planned to finish the mayor's race Wednesday. At the current rate, they'll be lucky to complete the task before midnight Thursday.

Computer programmers and data experts say it would be easy to write software to perform those calculations in a matter of seconds.

"I don't want to say I could do this for sure, but I think writing something that could do that would take about half an hour," said Minneapolis resident Winston Chang, who specializes in data analysis.

The problem: The law requires voting software to be certified at the state and federal level, and that hasn't happened because Minneapolis is one of fewer than two dozen U.S. cities that use ranked-choice voting.