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A Stone's Throw

Andy Stone // Published October 14, 2009 in The Aspen Times
So here's the thing about the lawsuit Marilyn Marks has filed to force the city to show her its ballots.

(Wow, when you write it that way, it sounds kind of dirty, doesn't it? “Pull down your pants and show us your ballots. We need to check for ‘distinguishing marks.'” OK, sorry about that. Back on course now.)

Marilyn is suing to force the city to release the ballots cast in the May election.

The exact reasoning behind her demand seems a little obscure. Does she want the ballots? Does she want the scanned images of the ballots? Is she checking the runoff system? Is she checking the counting system? Is she checking privacy protection? Or, maybe even, is she checking the results?

She consistently says she has no desire to overturn the election, but her lawsuit claims there were some serious problems with the process and that some of these problems were concealed from the public until after the date for protesting the results had passed. That sounds like someone laying the groundwork for a protest.

But, what the heck, I'm going to take Marilyn at her word.

And, really, that makes sense. If she were to try to challenge things now, she'd be making a liar of herself and ensuring that a vast majority of local voters would turn on her. If they haven't already.

So let's skip this dog's breakfast of legalese and jump across to what might actually be behind Marilyn's outrage.

Apparently, it's the “instant runoff voting” system. Marilyn has, from the very start, been a raging opponent of the new system. (People call it “IRV,” which sounds like a cross between the IRS and an SUV — something for everyone to hate. It also makes me think of my crazy uncle Irving — everyone called him Irv. He used to take out his false teeth at the dinner table and rinse them in his water glass. “Irv!” my mother would shout. “Don't take your teeth out at dinner!” “Can't hear you!” he'd scream back. “I don't have my teeth in!” Family dinners were never dull.)

So anyway, Marilyn has been firmly, fiercely against IRV (the system, not my uncle — though I bet she'd hate him too if she ever met him). She's been implacable.

In ranting against IRV (Put your teeth in!), Marilyn has cited some complicated — to say the least — mathematics. She cheerfully noted that she's no math whiz, then sent us all to websites that, she said, would make everything clear.

As if.

I truly delighted in stumbling over the term “non-monotonicity.” Ya gotta love that one. At first, I was worried about coming down with a case of non-monotonicity, but then I got my shots. So everything's cool now.

All right, let's get serious.

Instant Runoff Voting undoubtedly has some problems. I spent a long time checking into arguments on all sides, and, clearly, there are occasional election results that can be fertile ground for argument. (As if that never happens with more classic systems. Can you say “Bush v. Gore”?)

I read one very intense website that argued fiercely that the 2009 municipal elections in Burlington, Vt., were a classic instance of IRV getting it wrong. Unfortunately that particular website used all its fervor to come out in favor of a different — and much more complicated — version of instant-runoff. Range voting. Don't get me started on that one.

The real point is that we need to think back to where this all began.

Once upon a time, Aspen elections — like most U.S. elections, including the major national ones — were decided by simple “plurality.” Whoever got the most votes won.

That led to candidates winning elections with a relatively small percentage of the vote. In a four-way election for mayor, a candidate could get barely more than a quarter of the votes and still win. A staggering 26 percent mandate.

So Aspen decided to hold runoff elections if no candidate got a majority. That seemed like a good, clean way of doing it.

But runoffs have their own set of problems.

There's the expense, of course. Elections aren't cheap.

Then there's fatigue — both candidate and voter fatigue. Good candidates can burn out when they're required to run a second all-out campaign, right after the first one ends.

More important, of course, voters get burned out and turned off. People stop paying attention. They tune out. They don't bother to vote the second time around. In the end, that can favor a highly motivated minority, voters who care fiercely but don't represent a true majority of the citizens.

And don't forget money — always a significant factor, particularly here. A candidate with money on his side can afford to go all out in the runoff and defeat someone who might represent the majority, but whose supporters don't have those deep pockets.

And if you think elections are inherently, dangerously flawed — machine error, voter error, voter fraud — then a second election just doubles the chances for errors. And even a standard runoff election can suffer from non-monotonicity. Even if it did get its shots.

And, finally, there's the fact that Aspen elections are in offseason, so a lot of people may leave town — or come back to town — somewhere along the way. As a result, the main election and the runoff may have significantly different “local” populations following the campaign and voting.

In other words, holding a runoff election is far from a simple infallible way of selecting the true “people's choice” for public office.

So where does that leave us? With Mick as mayor. And Marilyn as gadfly. And a city attorney who says we shouldn't release the ballots. And a council that agrees. And a lawsuit on our hands. And, of course, needing to get those monotonicity shots.

And, perhaps, some motivation to fine-tune the IRV system before the next election. Even as we remember that nothing is perfect.

Irv! Put your teeth in!