Majority of St. Louis Park council members support ranked-choice voting

Although the St. Louis Park City Council has rejected ranked-choice voting in the past, a majority of council members now support it.

The system, in use in Minneapolis and St. Paul, allows voters to rank multiple candidates as their choices for a given elected position. If the candidate a voter selected as his or her first choice is mathematically eliminated, election officials consider the voter’s second choice. If that candidate is eliminated, officials consider the voter’s third choice.

“Your first choice always remains that most viable choice unless defeated, explained Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota.

Massey and other supporters of ranked-choice voting appeared at a June 5 work session to support a change.

The issue arose at a public hearing in April, after which council members voted unanimously to eliminate primaries in future years. With the final council action that took place last month, the ordinance will take effect Aug. 16 – after this year’s Aug. 8 primary election.

During the public hearing, members of the League of Women Voters of St. Louis Park spoke in support of ranked-choice voting, particularly given the lack of a primary election to winnow the number of candidates in future years.

Council members at the work session asked questions about the percentage of spoiled ballots, meaning those that are filled out incorrectly, and the time required to tabulate election results.

About 4 percent of ranked-choice ballots in Minneapolis have been spoiled, about twice as high as the percentage in a traditional election, Massey acknowledged. However, she said a voter who fills out the ballot incorrectly is not necessarily disenfranchised because Hennepin County’s voting machines are programmed to detect errors that would disqualify a ballot immediately. A voter has the option to fill out a new ballot if the machine rejects the person’s previous ballot because of an error.

“Those are redone, so voters are getting used to that and that’s not happening as much,” Massey said.

Ballots on which voters select only one candidate for an office are not considered spoiled, she noted.

“Under-votes are not errors, but we highly discourage under-voting,” Massey said. “We want to make sure voters have a ballot that counts all the way to the finish line.”

The machines will not detect such mistakes as marking the same candidate in more than one column for an office or skipping a column between ranked candidates, according to a city staff report. If a voter selects the same candidate for all three choices, the vote will only count once for the candidate, the report states.

Minneapolis typically anticipates that council elections will take one or two hours to tabulate, Massey said.

“Minneapolis expects results the same day or the next day,” Massey said. “It’s pretty fast.”

However, City Manager Tom Harmening suggested that tabulation could take longer in the suburb.

“I would never guarantee we would reach that time limit,” Harmening said. “In the staff report, we think it could take a lot more time. We are never going to commit or even remotely suggest we could have a contested ballot going through two or three counts done in one or two hours. I think that would be over-promising.”

The city staff report, prepared by City Clerk Melissa Kennedy, says, “It is likely that city staff would need approximately 3-5 business days after the election to complete the process and declare a winner. A winner would not be declared on election night for races in which there is no winner after the first round of votes.”

Minneapolis has two teams of election officials to tabulate and compare results using spreadsheets, Kennedy said. When Councilmember Gregg Lindberg asked Kennedy who would be tabulating results in St. Louis Park, Mayor Jake Spano interjected, “You’re looking at her!”

Kennedy clarified that she did not know of any city clerk who would commit to tabulating all results alone.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” Kennedy said. “I will tell you 100 percent, if it’s up to me it would not just be me doing it.”

Other individuals would need to be trained, she indicated.

Lindberg, who along with Spano expressed more reluctance to embrace ranked-choice voting than other council members, said, “We’re going to have to figure that out…. Transparency and trust are something I think would be incredibly important in any sort of implementation. It seems to me that accuracy and cross-checking become incredibly important when we’re manipulating spreadsheets.”

He noted that in his full-time job working in human resources he has observed numerous errors created by employees copying and pasting information in spreadsheets.

Minneapolis has hired a firm to audit their results, Kennedy said. St. Paul uses a fully manual process of counting ballots using a hand count similar to the process used in a formal recount, Massey said. As a result, St. Paul takes longer to tabulate results. However, Massey said St. Paul and Minneapolis anticipate the use of a fully automated system by the next election cycle.

Massey said a federal and state certification process for voting machines has slowed the use of a fully automated system, but she said she anticipates such a system will be certified soon. Kennedy said a software update could provide such a system for county machines.

Council views

Despite their questions, most council members voiced support of the concept of ranked-choice voting.

Councilmember Anne Mavity noted that she worked in Russia for four years on the country’s first democratic elections after the end of the Soviet Union. While she alluded to problems with Russia’s system, Mavity said she believes St. Louis Park voters clearly will be able to understand ranked-choice voting.

“We have a really intelligent resident voter population,” Mavity said. “I think we should respect our voters.”

Although school districts in Minnesota cannot adopt ranked-choice voting, Mavity pointed out that the method used by the St. Louis Park School District to elect board members already differs from the city’s method.

“We’ve been doing different ballots to date, so to me that is not a substantive issue,” Mavity said.

St. Louis Park can use the money it is saving by eliminating future primaries to implement a ranked-choice voting system, Mavity said.

“I appreciate that staff is feeling a little bit that this is a heavy lift, but I think this is well within our capacity to do and do well,” Mavity said.

Councilmember Sue Sanger pointed out that four candidates have filed to represent Ward 1 in a seat that she will vacate at the end of the year.

“If this were happening in two years where we would have no primary and if we didn’t have ranked-choice voting at the same time, we would almost invariably wind up with a candidate elected who got less than 50 percent of the vote,” Sanger said. “I think that is not progress from a democracy point of view.”

Sanger said she would like the city’s charter commission to weigh in with a goal of implementing ranked-choice voting in time for the 2019 election cycle.

Councilmember Thom Miller called ranked-choice voting a more progressive way to elect officials that is more inclusive and encourages more candidates to run.

“I think it’s well worth the dollars spent to move it forward,” Miller said. “We need to move that direction as quickly as we can. It’s coming.”

Councilmember Steve Hallfin added, “This seems like a little more fair way to move down the road.”

Councilmember Tim Brausen said he believed the city could provide a ranked-choice voting system that would cost less than primaries. The system “enhances choice and participation,” Brausen said.

However, Lindberg said he still has more questions.

“I very much appreciate the advocates that have been out here, and we’ve heard a lot from them, but we haven’t heard from everyone or provided the opportunity, I should say, for residents to chat to us about this,” Lindberg said.

The public hearing in which ranked-choice voting supporters spoke had been called to discuss the elimination of primaries rather than specifically relating to ranked-choice voting.

Lindberg said he also would like more information about the costs of ranked-choice voting but concluded, “I think that conversation with the community is more important. It’s how we’ve done business for decades in St. Louis Park, and I would hope we would apply that in this conversation.”

Spano, who works as the chief of staff for Secretary of State Steve Simon in his full-time job, said he also is cautious about ranked-choice voting. The last mayoral election in Minneapolis that used ranked-choice voting became the city’s most expensive election in history, he said. Spano also said he has not been convinced that the system significantly increases turnout or participation.

“Does it encourage more candidates who are not like the people at this table to get involved in the process?” Spano asked. “I don’t know that, and I haven’t been able to find the data that shows that.”

He added, “Changing the way we’re elected is a pretty monumental thing – the biggest thing, to suggest the rules by which we’re selected. Yes, I have heard people who have said I definitely don’t want to do this – not as many as have said yes, do it, but I have heard from some.”

Brausen responded that the council already had changed the way the city conducts elections by eliminating primaries. Ranked-choice voting would prevent someone from winning a four-way race with 26 percent of the vote, he said.

In response to Spano’s questions about participation, Massey said the Minneapolis City Council has become more diverse after the city adopted ranked-choice voting.

“We’re actually seeing quite rapid diversification of the elected body,” Massey said.

Mavity observed that five members of the council supported the system more strongly than two others, but she said that level of support should be enough to study the issue further.

Harmening cautioned them, “I would suggest we not just throw this into the charter commission’s lap. I think the council needs to talk about this again and the fundamentals of how we might move forward.”

He also noted that a candidate can win an election with the support of less than 50 percent of voters in a ranked-choice voting system, although he said that would be less likely than the system St. Louis Park would have without it.

“There’s no perfect system,” Harmening said. “We have almost 30,000 registered voters. How do you want to engage those people in this conversation?”

Council members did not approve any specific steps but indicated a consensus to discuss ranked-choice voting again.

To implement ranked-choice voting, council members would need to approve a charter amendment through a unanimous vote or voters would have to approve the system during an election.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]