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Aspen’s mayor should be elected with majority support

The Aspen Times Editorial

Nearly a year ago, as the city argued its way toward the most recent City Council election, it occurred to those serving on the old council that what Aspen needs is a process for holding runoff elections.

The idea behind runoffs is that in elections in which no candidate wins a clear majority of the votes, the voters have really not had a chance to express their true feelings in the matter. A runoff contest between the two candidates who get the highest number of votes would then give the voters a true choice and give the winning candidate the ability to govern with a true “mandate” from a majority of the voters.

For instance, in the last mayoral race, Mayor Rachel Richards garnered 589 votes or 32 percent of the 1,797 votes cast for mayor. She won the election by a margin of only 14 votes over her nearest competitor, Helen Klanderud, who pulled in 575 votes (31 percent).

Political newcomer Michael O’Sullivan came in third with 406 votes, and former Mayor Bill Stirling finished last with 227.

If the city had a mechanism for holding runoff elections, Richards and Klanderud would have faced each other in a contest in which one of them would have won more than 50 percent of the votes cast. In theory, at least, the will of the people would have been clearer.

As Mayor Richards pointed out, this idea was brought up by the members of the City Council, who were well aware of the probability that last May’s election would not yield a majority win for any particular candidate. There were four people running, and the most likely outcome was just what happened – Richards won with a plurality, which means she got more votes than anyone else.

The council members decided to initiate an investigation into the runoff process, thinking that it would be better to get it started before the election so no one could level accusations of sour grapes or other political ill will against anyone who brought it up after the election.

There is definitely merit to the idea, given Aspen’s fractured political atmosphere. And the mere fact that a runoff is held cannot be counted as a boon to either side of the political fence. It’s not like either conservatives or liberals, pro-development forces or anti-growth activists have a guaranteed edge in such a situation.

The only real winners are the voters, because the will of the electorate is more clearly seen in a race between two candidates than in a race between three, four or five.

By definition, a runoff would be most feasible in the mayoral race, since the council seats go to the two or three candidates who get the highest number of votes, depending on the year. To hold runoffs in council races would be fairly complicated and possibly fruitless in the long run.

But the mayor’s position is one that should carry with it a clear mandate from the voters whenever possible, and a runoff would make that much more likely.

Actually, the same result could be achieved with either a primary or a runoff, if a primary is held whenever there are three or more candidates vying for the mayor’s post.

But such questions are better left up to the city charter commission, which Mayor Richards said will soon be convened to take a look at this issue. It is to be hoped that the commission will not be the target of politically charged lobbying.

But this matter definitely warrants further investigation. Governance in Aspen is difficult enough without worrying about charges that our officials were elected without true popular support.


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