Math is on Noecker's side in St. Paul City Council race

Rebecca Noecker
Rebecca Noecker
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Voters in St. Paul's Ward 2 won't know who will represent them on the City Council until next week, but the odds favor Planning Commissioner Rebecca Noecker, who currently leads former city DFL Chair Darren Tobolt by 3 percentage points.

Noecker's 183-vote lead among first-choice ballots may not seem that large, but overtaking it will be more challenging than it looks. The reason: math.

St. Paul uses ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to rank up to six candidates. Since neither Noecker nor Tobolt has a majority of first-choice votes, the other candidates will be systematically eliminated. Their votes will be redistributed to other candidates based on the voters' rankings.

Tobolt's problem is that there are only 1,137 votes in play. He needs to net at least 58 percent of them in order to pull ahead of Noecker. While that's theoretically possible, it's unlikely given the data currently available from the Secretary of State's office.

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Tobolt has slightly more non-first-choice votes than Noecker, but nowhere near 58 percent. A large number of those votes won't come into play anyway because many Noecker voters ranked Tobolt second and vice versa. Only voters who support non-viable candidates have their back-up choices taken into account.

Tobolt's path is made more difficult, because many voters don't exercise the option to rank their votes. More than a quarter of Ward 2 voters had no second-choice candidate. Close to two-thirds had no third choice. That further shrinks the universe of potential votes available to Tobolt.

If Noecker maintains her lead, it will represent something of an upset in the hotly contested race. Tobolt had the backing of Mayor Chris Coleman and former Mayor George Latimer.

The leading candidates had each raised around $70,000 as of their most recent campaign finance filings two weeks ago.

But based on the volume of negative campaign literature blanketing Ward 2 in the weeks leading up to the election, Tobolt appeared to have more outside spending on his behalf. The AFL-CIO produced a series of mailers suggesting Noecker was a closet conservative, a potent attack in this DFL stronghold.

Noecker had independent expenditures on her side as well. The St. Paul Police Federation attacked Tobolt as an insider, too cozy with the city's political establishment.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of the race with certainty, because Ramsey County's election machines don't collect all the data necessary to make a determination. There are no machines certified to count ranked-choice ballots, so the actual tabulation will be done by hand on Monday.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are currently the only Minnesota cities that use ranked-choice voting. Voters in Duluth on Tuesday rejected a proposal to implement the system there. Only a quarter of Duluth voters supported the measure.