After citizens approved instant-runoff voting (IRV) in November 2006, it took Minneapolis more than a year to start looking for machines that could count IRV ballots. Then officials rejected the machines they found. Now the city that once made the world’s fastest supercomputers expects to employ 100 election judges for eight weeks to conduct a full hand-count of next month’s city election. Judging by their campaigns, candidates for city office haven’t cottoned much faster to the new system.
With IRV the city saves the time and expense of holding a separate primary election in September – only to incur a comparable cost of counting every ballot by hand, some more than once, over a period of weeks that will be anything but “instant” and is bound to test the patience of an electorate still wincing from the recount and ensuing court action in the 2008 U.S. Senate contest.
Future elections will run more quickly and smoothly if the city buys equipment capable of handling IRV’s successive rounds of runoffs to find a winner by majority vote.
The city got a late start on shopping for such machines after voters approved IRV, then decided not to accept deals from either of two willing suppliers for unstated reasons – a legal challenge and equipment-certification hurdles didn’t help.
But it was the voters’ will to use IRV, and city government and citizens have been getting ready. Voters are boning up on how to cast an IRV ballot – the city’s education budget is one-tenth what San Francisco spent on a similar effort – and officials are staffing up for full shifts of tabulating votes through December.
Candidates, however, are proving slow to exploit the new system as part of their pitches to voters.
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who pushed for the adoption of IRV (also known as ranked choice voting, or RCV), has taken note of campaigns that mention the new voting system in their communications with voters.
“I have not seen everyone’s literature,” Glidden tells the Minnesota Independent. “The examples I have seen, including in my own race, have an RCV message such as ‘Make ________ your 1st choice.'”
Some campaigns link to the city election department’s IRV web page from their campaign sites. But candidates’ messages aren’t as forceful or attention-grabbing as they could be, in another advocate’s view.
“Where’s your ‘Number One’?” Jeanne Massey says she finds herself asking when she sees campaign literature. The executive director of IRV-advocacy group FairVote Minnesota says she has been surprised that candidates in Minneapolis haven’t made more of the new system. Most lawn signs and campaign literature look the same as in past elections, with few IRV-inspired pleas to fill in the candidate’s oval in the first column on the ballot.
Massey has made a point of collecting samples of campaign literature as FairVote helps the city spread the word about IRV. But until Friday she hadn’t seen a joint campaign ad of the sort prepared by Steve Jencha and Meg Forney, rivals for a single open park board seat in Minneapolis’ Sixth Park District. Their pitch (pdf): “Choose one of us as your #1 choice & the other as your #2 choice on Nov. 3rd!” (The ad has since disappeared from Forney’s website.)
That race – which includes five current or former park commissioners seeking three available seats – is likely to produce the city’s biggest pool of ballots requiring special attention from election judges. Under IRV, votes in multi-seat elections get redistributed by fractions in successive rounds of counting to find majority victors, as demonstrated with Post-It notes and scissors in this Minnesota Public Radio video.
That first-of-its-kind method of vote-tabulation can be done by machine, Massey says, but hand-counting works too – just slower. The city’s election office is allowing three days of counting for each of the city’s wards after Election Day.
The prospect of not knowing the winners of the park board’s at-large seats played into the board’s indication Thursday that they would extend the contract of Superintendent Jon Gurban, which ends next summer, by one year.
Several commissioners, including retiring commissioners Tracy Nordstrom and Walter Dziedzic, said they wanted to make the decision before a new board takes office. President Tom Nordyke noted that the board is scheduled to take formal action to renew the contract (or not) on Nov. 4 – the day after the election.
But unlike in past city-election years, at least one-third of the new nine-member board won’t be known then, making it harder for the outgoing board to ascertain what the incoming board’s wishes might be.
Whatever the political costs and consequences of switching to IRV, any financial hit to the city from doing a hand count will be negligible, according to Interim Elections Director Patrick O’Connor.
“Looks at this point to be a wash, with the savings from not having to conduct a primary,” O’Connor informed the Minnesota Independent. The cost either way: about $225,000.