A seemingly split Rochester Charter Commission is set to tackle the ins and outs of ranked-choice voting on Thursday.
When a public hearing on the topic was proposed in January, some members suggested the commission needed more information before presenting an option for public comment.
“If we don’t know for sure what we are going to do, how can we be good stewards of the process?” commission Vice Chairman Bob Haeussinger asked.
Ranked-choice voting allows people to rank multiple candidates in a race by preference. It means voters would no longer worry about wasting a vote and would allow more candidates to stand in the final election, rather than narrowing candidates through a primary election.
While the basic idea is fairly simple, the practice comes with several variables.
“There’s a lot of minutia to it,” said Rochester City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead, who helped educate Minneapolis voters when the practice was adopted while she worked for the clerk’s office there.
Among likely changes that would be required with ranked-choice voting is a switch to odd-year elections for city offices.
While voting machines may be able to handle ranked ballots alongside the traditional ballots that would be required for county, state and federal elections, Hollingshead said it remains unclear whether that would be allowed.
“They don’t see that there is a way to put together a ballot with what state statute requires,” she said of preliminary discussions with the state and county, even though no direct guidance has been offered by the Secretary of State’s office.
In a January memo to the Charter Commission, Hollingshead outlined potential challenges and advantages the change could bring for the city.
“My role is not to advocate for or against a potential change for the voting methodology used by Rochester voters,” she said in addressing items for the commission to consider.
In addition to the potential need to shift the election cycle and related costs, she pointed to a need for voter education, since the new process could confuse some people.
At the same time, she cited potential advantages, such as eliminating the need for a primary in crowded city elections and increasing the likelihood that eventual winners would have greater support in the city.
Additionally, Hollingshead said the shift to odd-year elections could provide greater attention to city elections, since candidates won’t need to compete for attention with state and federal elections.
“The top of the ballot in some even years can suck all the oxygen out of the air,” she said, citing potential voter fatigue during presidential elections.
Hollingshead said she plans to be on hand Thursday, in case Charter Commission members have questions about ranked-choice voting and related issues.
Charter Commission member Ray Schmitz brought up the option last year after Minneapolis and St. Paul held successful elections using the process. It’s an option that has been discussed in the past by the local commission but hadn’t advanced.
Schmitz said in January he is hoping to hold a public hearing on the topic in March, so the commission can decide whether to recommend a charter change. If the commission recommends it, the Rochester City Council would need to unanimously approve it, or the issue would be sent back to the commission, which could call for a public vote as early as November.
Some Rochester residents aren’t waiting for the potential monthslong process to unfold and have been gathering signatures to call for a November vote on ranked-choice voting, regardless of what the commission and council decide.
Supporters started collecting signatures last month, with a goal of getting more than 3,000 by July 1. That number would be more than enough to put a question on the ballot.
Steve Monk, who is helping lead the effort, estimated about 200 signatures were gathered during party caucuses earlier this month, but he expects the tally to grow in the coming months as volunteers start going door-to-door.
“When the weather gets nicer, we will ramp up dramatically,” he said.
If the drive is successful and voters choose the option for ranked-choice voting, Hollingshead said that doesn’t end the jobs of the Charter Commission and Rochester City Council. She said they would have to implement charter changes to determine how the new voting process goes.