Ryan Summerlin September 28, 2010
“Why spend so much energy on election integrity issues?” “Why not focus on something popular then run for office?” After all, it’s “not nice” to raise these issues so very publicly.
Until fair and transparent elections can be restored in Aspen, I believe that we are stuck with the status quo. Without major reform, running for office merely adds unearned legitimacy to an illegitimate process.
“Take back our government,” voters say. But Aspen’s prerequisite is to take back our ballot boxes! Given the long-standing systemic irregularities documented in Aspen’s 2009 election, citizens must first demand oversight of elections, or there can be little assurance that your vote counts as you intend. Why seek election if our ballot boxes are not secure, nor their contents properly tabulated?
Some promote altering government through the “power of the ballot box.” There is no such power without citizen oversight. Aspen citizens reject the notion that local elections are subject to the same pressures for mischief as “other places.” In the national election integrity press, Aspen is one of the “other places” considered a poster child for bad process. The problem is not merely IRV, but the culture of local government control of our elections, where officials create rules and practices at their whim, benefiting whomever they see fit. Until citizens demand meaningful election controls, voters cannot expect different results in City Hall.
The devil is indeed in the details. Officials exploit details in the election process. The public, lacking patience for details, absolve themselves of responsibility for citizen oversight. Voters prefer to “trust, not verify” demanding instant election night results – a recipe for unnoticed election irregularities.
The local prognosis is mixed. Pitkin County Clerk Janice Vos-Caudill and Election Manager Dwight Shellman, operating under Colorado regulations, continually work on improvements in accuracy, security, transparency and maximum voter participation. Dissatisfied with “good enough,” they encourage input for improvements. I’m personally working with them on proposals for enhanced transparency projects still under discussion for November. On Nov. 2, I will vote with confidence that controls are in place to report my votes accurately.
Fortunately, Aspen’s November ballot questions will be tabulated by Pitkin County. Conversely, Aspen’s May 2011 election and other city-controlled elections seem to have little chance of meaningful improvement. The sordid irregularities are too numerous and complex for a letter, but a sample is available in the scores of pages of complaints on the city’s election website.
Unfortunately, Aspen’s election commission has made scant progress in addressing the growing list of irregularities. The political environment seems too challenging for the two commissioners to operate effectively. After six months on the job, their remedies for future elections have been elusive, amounting to little more that gentle suggestions to adhere to laws in the future, and most recently, adoption of city proposals to further reduce transparency. It’s shocking and sad. Major reform must be forced by activists before voters can expect to have real impact at Aspen’s ballot box. Only aggressive action and diligent attention will allow for that reform. I see it as the most critical fundamental requirement for better government in the future.