Aspen rejects instant runoff voting – by six votes
ASPEN – By only a six-vote margin, Aspen voters opted to do away with Instant Runoff Voting in future city elections, according to Tuesday’s tally in a mail-only election.
Aspen residents voted 805-799 to eliminate ranking City Council and mayoral candidates by preference on the municipal election ballot, which replaced the traditional June runoff.
The city of Aspen launched its first-ever IRV election this past May. Shortly thereafter, doubts among elected officials and some residents surfaced as to whether the method was the best way to elect a mayor and City Council members.
In response, the council agreed to put a non-binding advisory question on the November ballot that asked residents whether IRV should be scrapped or kept in place.
Now it will be up to the council to determine whether Tuesday’s election results are a mandate to change how city elections are conducted, or if IRV should continue.
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“It’s really in the council’s hands,” said Jim True, the city’s special counsel and a key staff member in creating Aspen’s IRV system. “It’s certainly not overwhelming. Is that really a directive to keep it or get rid of it? I don’t know.”
The council and city election staffers will explore alternatives to IRV and present them to the public. The city could go back to the previous method, which required that the mayor earn 50 percent plus one of the overall vote, and that council members get 45 percent plus one of the vote to avoid a runoff. Under that method, if candidates didn’t reach those thresholds in the May election, runoff elections were held in June between the top vote-getters.
Another option could be winner take all with no majority needed, a system that Aspen used many years ago. There are other possibilities to consider as well. A citizen task force made up of apolitical residents who haven’t run for office in past elections will likely weigh the alternatives.
The council will have to choose an alternate election system and present that to voters, which would require a change to the city charter. That could occur in the November 2010 election. If approved, then the new method would be valid for the May 2011 municipal election.
If voters shoot down whatever is presented in a charter amendment, IRV would remain the election method for city municipal elections.
“Whether it gets changed in that election, it could go either way,” True said, characterizing Tuesday’s results as “interesting.”
Aspenites voted in November 2007 to try the instant-runoff method in order to save the time, money and energy associated with holding two spring elections.
After a specific IRV method – the first in the country to incorporate multiple candidates for multiple seats – was chosen by a panel of city staff and citizens, the council adopted it.
IRV critics and City Hall observers decried the way IRV was administered and the lack of a full-blown audit of the results.
Former mayoral candidate and poll watcher Marilyn Marks is an opponent of IRV and said while she’s pleased with Tuesday’s results, she’s concerned about the amount of work the council has to do in a short period of time to come up with an alternative voting method that’s palatable to the public.
“Definitely the council will have to go back to the public and this shows there’s enough uncertainty about [IRV],” she said. “It’s going to be a huge amount of work.”
Harvie Branscomb, another poll watcher and a proponent of IRV, said Tuesday’s results are hardly a mandate.
“It’s in the range of uncertainty in the election,” he said. “No one is going to be happy with it.”
Both Marks and Branscomb are involved in a bipartisan effort to conduct an independent review of Aspen’s May election results.
Some council members have said they didn’t have enough confidence in, or an understanding of, the IRV process. As a result, it has opened the city up to liability and voter confusion.
City Clerk Kathryn Koch and True told the council shortly after the May election that the IRV method worked exactly as it was designed to, and closely mimicked the runoff system to which voters had been accustomed. Koch and True, who spent hundreds of hours researching and devising Aspen’s system, recommended IRV be used in the 2011 municipal election.
However, True said public education could be improved upon because many voters didn’t know how to rank their candidates, or didn’t rank all of them, thus reducing their chances to participate in an instant runoff.