Aspen’s May election faces more challenges
September 3, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen’s election commission plans to ask for an outside attorney to determine its authority on whether it can rule on a citizen’s claim that his voting rights were violated in the May election, as well as another resident’s request to release all the ballots so they can be reviewed independently.
The commission, made up of Elizabeth Milias, Chris Bryan and City Clerk Kathryn Koch, met Wednesday to discuss local attorney Millard Zimet’s Aug. 30 complaint filed with the city that claims he was deprived his right under Colorado law to have a secret ballot in Aspen’s first Instant Runoff Voting election.
Also on the commission’s agenda was former mayoral candidate Marilyn Marks’ Colorado Open Record Act request for all of the 2,544 ballots cast by Aspen voters so they can be checked against how the scanning machines interpreted them as part of an independent review.
City attorney John Worcester has denied that request, arguing that voters’ ballots should be private, per the city’s home rule charter and the council’s intent to keep them from public review.
Commission members want an opinion from independent counsel on what their scope, jurisdiction and authority is regarding those issues because the city charter and the state statute are unclear.
“For me personally I am primarily interested in what power we have,” Bryan said, adding the city attorneys’ office is likely conflicted in giving an opinion since it gives advice to the council and the commission’s position may go against the city’s in the future.
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Worcester advised the commission to request funds from the council to hire an outside attorney to investigate the matter.
Koch said she will write a memo and the request will be presented to the council at its Sept. 14 meeting.
Milias said time is of the essence because the issues before the commission are serious, and deserve attention and a timely response.
“We can’t just leave these hanging,” she said of Zimet’s complaint and Marks’ open records request.
The commission’s main role up until now was to oversee election night results, and the IRV procedures. Because it is charged with oversight of Aspen’s municipal elections, it will likely examine in the future the IRV process and ways to improve upon it.
Aspen voters will be asked this November an advisory question whether IRV should be retained or another method should be pursued, including systems used in the past.
Marks is against the IRV method and wants to revert back to the old way of doing municipal elections, which is to hold a June runoff if the mayor and council members don’t receive a majority vote.
Zimet argues in his complaint that he was able to identify his ballot and if he can, others might be able to as well. Because the city keeps records on who voted in which order, Zimet said he could possibly figure out how people before and after him voted by comparing ballot logs to the strings.
The strings are each voter’s rankings of the 13 candidates, who were assigned numbers in a computer program as they were listed in order on the ballot.
The election administrators, True Ballot Inc., assigned those numbers to what’s referred to as a “string” when they scanned and took images of the ballots on Tuesday night.
Marks argues that ballots already are public record because their digital images were flashed on screens in council chambers on election night. She also argues that the identity of voters can’t be revealed because no names are attached to them.
The point of the independent audit is to capitalize on the transparency of Aspen’s election since each ballot has been documented and recorded as a digital image, which is unique to elections held around the country, Marks argues.
The IRV system allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. The IRV rests on a threshold of votes counted. All first and second rankings are counted, and the two candidates with the most total votes who have reached the threshold are elected.