Aspen’s runoff election system isn’t working
“Pathetic” is about the only word that comes to mind in describing voter turnout in the June 7 runoff election that determined who – Dee Malone or Jack Johnson – should join the Aspen City Council. Just 19 percent – fewer than 1,000 voters – of the city’s electorate bothered to participate Tuesday. And the winner, Johnson, garnered only 664 votes, fewer than the number he racked up in the seven-way race for council in last month’s general election.It’s unfortunate for Aspen that so few voters saw fit to go to the polls. This was one of those races that may actually have a profound effect on the debates that will shape our community’s future, because Johnson and Malone offered up very different points of view about what’s important for Aspen.After three city elections with the runoff election system, it’s clear that it isn’t working. Voter turnout dropped from levels set in the general election in all three runoff elections held since the system was implemented, significantly in the last one. Aspenites and their elected officials should seriously consider radical reforms to the current system, or scrapping it altogether.The runoff system was created following the 1999 mayoral campaign, a four-way race in which Rachel Richards defeated Helen Klanderud by just 14 votes. Richards was elected with support from just 32 percent of the voters. That result prompted the City Council to devise the system that was eventually approved by voters.Currently, a runoff election is triggered in a mayor’s race if none of the candidates in the May general election garners more than 50 percent of the vote, plus one, with the top two advancing to a runoff one month later. City Council candidates must gain support from more than 45 percent of voters to avoid a runoff.This year, with two open seats on council, top vote-getter J.E. DeVilbiss won a seat in the general election. Second-place finisher Jack Johnson fell short of the 45 percent threshold, so he and Malone, who finished third, advanced to the runoff to determine who should fill the second seat.Intuitively, the runoff election system makes sense. It is supposed to ensure that the people on City Council are supported by a majority of voters, and reduce the possibility of post-election disputes. The runoff system does make disputed elections less likely – there can be no dispute that a majority Tuesday supported Jack Johnson over Dee Malone. But with such sparse turnouts, it’s hard to see how the system serves Aspen.Johnson won his seat on City Council with the backing of just 12.5 percent of registered voters. That shouldn’t diminish his victory – he earned his seat by finishing second in the general election and first in the runoff election. But it casts doubts about the relevance of runoff elections. With such small turnouts, the results are much easier to manipulate. It’s not hard to imagine a day when some well-organized but narrowly focused group – a church, an environmental organization or a club, for instance – determines the outcome of the election with just a few hundred votes.If City Council can’t find a way (with voter approval) to amend the current system so the runoff election is held within a week or two of the general election, when people are still paying attention and likely to show up at the polls, then it should consider scrapping the system altogether. Reinstating the old system, which elects whoever has the most support from voters on election day, might not be such a bad idea, even if we keep arguing for a few months after all the votes are counted.