Risky business: Changing elections


City of Minneapolis officials might find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to implementing instant runoff voting (IRV), which city officials are now planning to call ranked choice voting or RCV. If they don’t implement it this year–they have the option not to–they have to wait four more years to follow the will of the voters, who approved RCV for Minneapolis city elections back in 2006. But if they do implement RCV, and the plan is eventually shot down in the court system (a lawsuit is underway), the 2009 election could be voided; and, with the City Charter already amended to use RCV in elections, officials would have no clearly-established legal way to run a second election…or the city.

With ranked choice voting, there is no primary election and voters rank the candidates rather than voting for just one. If no candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choices on that candidate’s ballots receive those votes. This process continues until one candidate has the majority.

A group called Minnesota Voters Alliance has challenged the Minneapolis RCV plan in court. In January, a Hennepin County District Court judge granted the city a summary judgement, which means that the facts upon which both sides already agree would require a court to rule in the city’s favor, so no trial is needed.

Minnesota Voters Alliance appealed the case, and both sides asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear the case immediately, without following the usual legal path through the Minnesota Court of Appeals. On March 17, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page issued an order approving that plan and calling for a hearing in May.

A Minnesota Supreme Court ruling could, under certain conditions, be appealed to the federal courts.

The 2006 City Charter amendment allows the City Council to declare that the city isn’t ready to implement RCV for the 2009 election, if such an ordinance is passed four months or more before the election, which means the city has until early July at the latest to take that option. If that happens, the election will be run as past elections have been run, with a primary on Sept. 15.

According to a Feb. 3 memo from City Attorney Susan Segal and Assistant City Attorney Lisa Needham, “If the adverse (court) decision was obtained after the election, there is a risk that the IRV-conducted election could be overturned and a new election ordered. The election process presumably would have to include both a primary and a final election (assuming there are more than two candidates for any office). The Mayor and all City Council positions are up for election in 2009, as are all nine Park Board positions and two positions on the Board of Estimate and Taxation. The term of office for the current incumbents ends January 4, 2010…. There is no provision either in state law or in the City Charter to govern who would run the City or the Park Board if a new election is ordered, but can’t be completed prior to the expiration date of the term of office for the incumbents.”

How would the city operate? “The possible options include a special session of the legislature to establish a process or an interim remedy fashioned by the courts. No answer is provided in either the City Charter of state law. In the event of an invalidated election by the courts, the disruption to city governance and delivery of city services would be substantial,” the memo says.For now, city officials say the 2009 election is on a “dual track.” They’re planning for both a primary and an RCV general election, and haven’t indicated exactly when or how they’ll decide between the two.