Memo: 2015 St. Paul City Council Elections and Ranked Choice Voting

MEMORANDUM

To:  Candidates & Interested Parties

From:  Jeanne Massey, FairVote Minnesota Executive Director, 612-850-6897

Subject:  2015 St. Paul City Council Elections and Ranked Choice Voting

Date:  October 30, 2015

This memorandum will guide the reader through expectations in advance of the 2015 elections in St. Paul, where voters will use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to elect city councilors. 

Where Might Rankings Beyond a Voter’s First Choice Matter? 

Absent a large number of voters selecting a write-in as their first choice, it is expected that in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 7, where there are one or two candidates on the ballot, that a candidate will win a majority of the vote on first choices alone -- meaning that no voters’ lower rankings will be necessary to determine the winner.

In Wards 2, 5, and 6, it is possible that some voters’ lower choices will be considered. With three candidates running in Wards 5 and 6, voters will be sure to have a voice in determining the winner by ranking a second choice. In Ward 2, with 6 candidates, voters should rank further to be sure to avoid an exhausted ballot.

When Will We Know Who Won? 

Results of the first choices will be released on Election Night as they always have been, and in races where a candidate receives a majority of the vote needed to win, a winner will be declared. If there are races not decided on Election Day, further counting will begin the morning of Monday, Nov. 9, at Ramsey County Elections. This is the same schedule and process Ramsey County Elections used in 2011 and 2013.

Ramsey County will post a schedule of race that will require additional rounds of counting following Election Day.

Civility

Especially in Ward 2, where voters are presented with the most choice for city council, the positive impact of RCV on the civility of candidates’ campaigns has been quite evident. Both in public forums and campaign materials, the campaigns have largely avoided personal attacks -- instead presenting more positive and policy-focused communications. 

However, some outside groups are still learning how negative campaigning can backfire under RCV. So far in the campaign, when independent expenditure groups have sent questionable direct mail attacks, the candidates the communications were intended to benefit have distanced themselves from the attacks and attempted to more positively refocus their campaigns.

In Ward 5, where there is not as strong a third candidate presence, we’ve seen more negative campaigning that resembles a traditional two-way race.

Voter Understanding

As we did in 2011 and 2013, FairVote Minnesota partnered again this year with Minnesota Voices and Ramsey County Elections as well as community and neighborhood organizations to provide grassroots, targeted voter education to ensure voters were prepared for the RCV election this November. As such, we expect voters to understand how to effectively complete their ranked ballot and to operate within the electoral process in sophisticated ways. In 2013, voters in St. Paul’s diverse Ward 1 demonstrated a deep and comprehensive understanding of Ranked Choice Voting, with over 72 percent of voters ranking at least two choices, and over half ranking three choices. Moreover, turnout in that ward was the highest it had been for a municipal election in eight years. This positive trend should continue, especially in Ward 2 where voters are presented with the most choice.

We anticipate the same trends to emerge in this year’s election, and such trends indicate that the voting populace deeply understands the RCV process. If those who make the eventual winner their top choice rank less than other voters, or if rankings are more prevalent in competitive city council races, these facts indicate deep strategic understanding of the RCV process.

Turnout

We do not expect that RCV will be the primary driver of turnout, although the elimination of the primary will give voters on average more choice than they would have under the old system. A large new study by University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor David Kimball and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony examines the impact of (RCV) on voter turnout in 26 American cities across 79 elections. When we take a more expansive, representative look at RCV across the U.S., we see that RCV increases overall turnout when compared to primary and runoff elections. Other than that, RCV has little impact on electoral participation and the inequalities that too often accompany it. RCV does, however, give voters more choice, solves the problem of vote splitting, and improves the tone of campaigns.

In 2011, St. Paul’s first year using RCV, turnout was 19.7% of registered voters citywide. Turnout in individual wards ranged from 10.7% in Ward 7 to 28.4% in Ward 3. In 2013, turnout was 20.2% citywide and 24.1% for the special election for city council in Ward 1. In 2009, the year of St. Paul’s last municipal primary, turnout was 7.4%.

Winning Threshold

The winner in an RCV election is the candidate who has a majority of continuing ballots, i.e., those expressing a preference in the final round. The importance of a majority threshold is more than a number; it’s what striving for majority support fosters: it incentivizes candidates to reach out beyond their base to the entire electorate.

The eventual winner of each city council race will have won 50% +1 of the ballots remaining in the final round of counting. If a candidate receives 50% + 1 of all first choices, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate receives 50% + 1 of all first choices, then the candidates who are mathematically incapable of winning are eliminated and the voters who made those candidates their first choice have their votes transferred to their second choice.

The votes are then retallied to see if anyone has 50% + 1 of the remaining ballots. As candidates are eliminated, some ballots will become exhausted. This happens when every candidate a voter has ranked has been defeated before the final round. Once a ballot is exhausted, it will no longer factor into further rounds.

As the counting rounds progress, the winner must achieve 50% + 1 of the remaining ballots (all ballots minus those that have been exhausted). The rationale for this is simple: a vote continues to transfer until all the candidates that voter chose are still in contention. If a voter has expressed no preference among the remaining candidates, then that ballot no longer factors into tabulation because the voter has given no opinion about preferences for the remaining candidates. The more choices a voter ranks, the greater the chance his or her ballot will make it to the final round. With up to six rankings available to all voters, and no more than six candidates in any race on the ballot, no ballot will be exhausted for lack of ability to express as many candidate preferences as a voter wishes.

Ramsey County Counting Method

For 2015, Ramsey County Elections will do a manual count of races that require the use of voters’ second and third choices. The reallocation process will begin the morning of November 9 at Ramsey County Elections on Plato Blvd. The process is called the piling method in which all the ballots for each candidate are sorted in piles according to first choices. The candidate with the fewest ballots is defeated and those ballots are added one by one to the remaining piles based on the next choices one those ballots. This process continues until one candidate reaches the required threshold or until two candidates remain and the candidate with the most votes wins.

The process is independently monitored and open for public observation.