Council leery of instant runoffs

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Instant Runoff Voting, a system that asks voters to rank candidates and eliminates the need for separate runoff elections, received a somewhat skeptical reaction from the Aspen City Council on Monday.

The council didn’t say “no,” but members didn’t embrace the idea, either. They agreed it is worthy of further discussion before they decide whether or not to put a city charter amendment before voters that will allow Aspen to implement IRV, as it’s known.

The city and Pitkin County are in the process of buying new voting equipment, which makes this a good time to consider IRV, according to City Clerk Kathryn Koch.

By holding just one election for City Council and the mayor, and using the same ballots to decide the runoff, the city would save on the cost of the election, and runoff candidates wouldn’t need to finance a second campaign, she said.

For the spring 2001 election, mayoral candidates Helen Klanderud and Rachel Richards raised $56,912 and spent $42,173 between the regular May election and the June runoff, four weeks later, according to Koch.

In addition, voter turnout for runoff contests typically drops off. Last year, the runoff attracted 1,810 voters, compared to 2,003 who cast ballots in May, she noted.

“The thing is, it’s not even the same batch of voters, necessarily,” Mayor Klanderud added.

“Doesn’t this change the whole way of voting?” said Councilman Terry Paulson. “When I vote for a candidate, that’s the only one I want.”

Had IRV been in place for the last mayoral election, voters would have been able to rank all four candidates in order of preference. Had no one won a clear majority (no one did), the candidate garnering the fewest votes would have been dropped and the ballots re-tallied. For each ballot on which the voter’s top choice was out of the race, the second choice would have been counted. The process would have been repeated until a winner emerged.

Instead of having four weeks to think about a second pick if a voter’s first choice was eliminated in the May election, they’d have to make that second choice, and a third and fourth choice, etc., the first time around, said City Manager Steve Barwick.

“It changes the dynamics of voting,” he said.

Fringe candidates might receive more votes under the system, as voters might make that candidate their top pick, knowing they can make a favored candidate their No. 2 choice, Barwick predicted.

Paulson wondered how IRV would affect candidate campaigns: “Vote for me, but as a second choice?”

“Does it really make for a better democracy?” Klanderud said.