A runoff without a runoff in Aspen?
May 31, 2002
When Aspenites cast their votes for City Council and the mayor next spring, they could decide the results of a runoff election among the candidates at the same time.
It’s called Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, and some municipalities already have it in place. San Franciscans recently adopted the system to eliminate the need for costly runoff elections that often attract a poor turnout.
City Clerk Kathryn Koch is exploring the capabilities of the new technology and plans to broach council members on their interest in such a system next week.
Koch and Silvia Davis, Pitkin County’s clerk and recorder, are currently looking into new voting equipment that will replace the punch-card system that has been in place at both city and county polling places.
The county has already experimented with an optical-imaging system, in which voters fill in circles on a card that can be read by a computer. Touch-screen voting machines are another option. Since the two governments will be replacing their old voting equipment anyway, Koch figures the city has an opportunity to look into the IRV software.
“Now is a good time to bring it up to the council,” she said.
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Aspen voters amended the city charter in November 2000, instituting runoff elections to ensure no candidate is elected to office without the backing of a significant share of the electorate.
Mayoral candidates must win with a simple majority – 50 percent of the votes cast, plus one. City Council candidates must collect at least 45 percent of the votes cast.
Aspen saw its first runoff election in the spring of 2001, when Mayor Helen Klanderud bested then-incumbent Rachel Richards. Neither candidate garnered at least 50 percent of the votes in the first go-round, but they were the top two vote-getters in a field of four.
Though the City Council field in May 2001 included eight candidates, Councilmen Terry Paulson and Tim Semrau both received at least 45 percent of the vote, so no runoff election was necessary. Had no candidate collected 45 percent, the top four vote-getters would have faced off in a runoff.
With Instant Runoff Voting, the ballots cast in the mayoral race would have been used to determine the results of the runoff immediately after the initial election, according to Koch. There would be no need for the voters to return to the polls a month later to choose a winner.
“What the computer does right away is what we do four weeks apart,” she said. “I believe the IRV would save money – you wouldn’t have to have two elections and you’d still have a candidate with a majority.”
IRV would also spare candidates from another round of fund-raising and spending for a runoff campaign, Koch said.
The drawback may well be a nagging suspicion among voters that IRV can’t be trusted to take the place of a good old-fashioned runoff, she conceded.
Voters will, at least, have the final say on the matter. Instituting the system would require the voters’ blessing, in the form of another charter amendment.
Koch said she plans to present the proposed amendment language and some background on IRV for the council’s consideration at its work session on Monday.
The IRV system, including a sample election involving characters from The Muppets, is detailed at the http://www.fairvote.org Web site.
Had IRV been in place for last year’s Aspen mayoral election, voters could have cast votes for all four candidates in order of preference (a voter has the option of ranking some or all of the contenders).
After the first round of votes, if no candidate received a 50 percent majority, the candidate receiving the fewest votes (Torre, in this case) would be dropped and the ballots would be retallied. On any ballot in which Torre was the voter’s top choice, the vote cast for Torre would automatically go instead to the voter’s No. 2 choice for mayor.
The process would be repeated until a clear winner emerged.