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IRV appears to have worked, but the debate continues

Curtis Wackerle // Published May 7, 2009 in Aspen Daily News
Incumbent Councilman Jack Johnson, perhaps the city’s biggest advocate for instant runoff voting, found himself on the losing end Tuesday night of the system he pushed forward. He was beat out by former Councilman Torre, who has consistently opposed instant runoff voting.

“I love irony,” Johnson said.

But he said he has no regrets about advocating an instant runoff system, which voters approved with a charter amendment in the November 2007 election.

“No one [had to wake up on Wednesday] and start another campaign,” Johnson said. “The candidates and the electorate both ought to be thankful for that.”

Voters approved instant runoff voting based on the premise that it would save the time and expense of having a runoff election one month after the initial vote. In the 10 years that Aspen has held runoff elections, there was never a scenario where a candidate who ranked lower in the initial vote came back to upset the favorite. The system Aspen used on Tuesday to tabulate instant runoff ballots was designed to mimic voters’ choices in the later runoff.

This year’s instant runoff system ended up producing winners in all the races who received the most votes in the first round of counting.

While there were 168 “spoiled” ballots, which were initially filled out incorrectly, all but a handful of those voters took the opportunity to fill out a new ballot correctly.

Jim True, special counsel to the city of Aspen, said the system “worked just the way we designed it to.”

The crucial question for city officials to evaluate now is if they feel the concept of instant runoff voting is worthwhile, True said.

“How much would this community have liked to have another month to have four council candidates and Mick and Marilyn have another election?” True said. “Would that have been in the best interests of the town? That’s the debate.”

Councilman-elect Torre will most likely be the strongest voice on the new council to change the system, as he feels the extra month of campaigning is in the best interests of the city.

“With the numbers system, you just don’t get the same benefits you get from actual campaigning,” Torre said. “To abbreviate our most precious right of voting is just not where I think we need to be.”

Torre said he would “at least pose the question” of rescinding instant runoff voting, adding that he’s “not going to demand anything.”

Other council members had more mixed reviews.

Councilman Dwayne Romero said “it took a Ph.D. to process on the fly” how the second, third and fourth rounds of counting broke down, as it all happened so fast.

However, “I like the fact that it saves another month of the suspended animation of election season,” he said, noting council often shies away from controversial decisions during election season.

But Romero said he does appreciate the extra exposure the community gets from candidates in the additional month and that he is still undecided if he will support instant runoff voting going forward.

Councilman-elect Derek Johnson said he finds the spirit and idea of instant runoff voting sound.

“The idea of additional monies and campaigning I don’t think is sound,” he said. But the system needs to be looked at to make sure it worked exactly as advertised and to see if any tweaks are necessary, Johnson said.

Councilman Steve Skadron said it appears the system worked smoothly on Tuesday night, but he is looking forward to a debriefing with all instant runoff voting stakeholders to fully evaluate the program.

With such a tight race at the top of the council field, “it may have been one of those elections where an additional month may have brought greater clarity to the positions held by each candidate,” Skadron said.

The ultimate question, Skadron said, is: Was democracy served?

“One goal was to mimic the traditional method,” he said. “Second was to save time and money. The value of [of the first] is somewhat diminished if democracy wasn’t served.”

This year’s instant runoff proceedings probably cost about the same as holding two elections, City Clerk Kathryn Koch said. The city spent money on voter education materials, plus a team of East Coast instant runoff voting consultants, who cost $7,500, plus travel expenses, to develop and run the software to tabulate instant runoff ballots. But Koch said she hopes the city will be able to conduct the instant runoff vote in two years without the consultants’ help. A full breakdown of all the rounds of instant runoff voting can be found on the city clerk’s Web page at www.aspenpitkin.com/depts/38.

Election notes: Tuesday’s voter turnout of 2,544 was the highest in Aspen municipal election history, although there was also the highest number of registered voters in recent memory thanks to the surge in registration leading up to the 2008 presidential election. The 2007 municipal election turnout was 2,205 ballots cast. ... Although a poll watcher appointed by Marks filed a challenge to the method in which the city qualified voters who voted early using walk-in absentee ballots, both Marks and James Perry, who filed the challenge, said they will not seek to have the election results thrown out or challenged in court. But Perry did say he hopes his challenge will spur the city to tighten up its processes in future elections.