How will Aspen be asked to vote on how Aspen votes? | AspenTimes.com
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How will Aspen be asked to vote on how Aspen votes?

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Winner takes all? IRV? Traditional runoff voting? Or some sort of hybrid?

Aspen voters will likely decide from among these choices in the November 2010 election, thus determining how future municipal elections are structured.

At an Aspen City Council work session Monday, it was decided that the newly named Election Commission – comprising Ward Hausenstein, Robert Leatherman and Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch – would work with city staff, and possibly a citizen task force, to draft three or four ballot questions addressing the way Aspen votes.

The Aspen city charter currently allows for instant runoff voting, or IRV. However, the results of a November 2009 advisory question to the Aspen electorate directed the council, by a margin of seven votes, to do away with IRV, which was first employed locally in the May 2009 municipal elections.

It seemed those in attendance at Monday’s meeting agree IRV as it is currently structured does not work. The debate lies in whether it should be retained and restructured, or whether it should be eliminated and replaced all together.

“I firmly believe in keeping things simple and easy to understand,” said former Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud, who was elected to office both outright and in a runoff election. “I am not computer savvy; I am not mathematically savvy. … I think we should go back to where the person with the most votes wins, so you either win or lose. It’s the simplest, cleanest system.”

Such a system of plurality, where the winner takes all with no majority needed, was used in Aspen prior to 2001. After that, the city changed the charter to require that the mayor earn 50 percent plus one of the overall vote, and that council members get 45 percent plus one of the vote. Under this old method, if candidates didn’t reach those thresholds in the May election, runoff elections were held in June between the two top vote-getters.

Then, in November 2007, Aspenites voted to try the IRV method – which ranks candidates in order of preference – in order to save the time, money and energy associated with holding two spring elections.

But soon after the May 2009 election, doubts by elected officials and some residents surfaced as to whether the method was the best way to elect a mayor and City Council members.

“This is not a debate between types of runoff elections, and this is not about the will of the few and the loud,” said former Aspen City Councilman Jack Johnson, who contends that regardless of the voting method, someone will be unhappy with the results and look to place blame on the system for its failures. “Let us vote and let us shut up.”

Proponents of IRV contend it remains the best voting method, however. They agree the system as currently structured can be improved, and have offered a host of suggestions on how to do this at public meetings, via e-mail and otherwise.

“There were serious irregularities in the design and execution of IRV last year,” wrote City Hall critic Marilyn Marks in a recent letter to the editor. “Virtually none have been addressed or resolved. … The new Election Commission is attempting to organize to examine these problems.”

Council members, for their part, did not offer any direct opinions on if or how the voting method should be changed. Rather, they acknowledged the issue as one worthy of further discussion, as well as a public vote.

City Council also directed the Election Commission to not just focus on a “complex, big-picture” item such as voting method, but to also address “low-hanging fruit,” including simple procedural and administrative adjustments to Election Day.

Such direction was not met with enthusiasm by some in attendance at Monday’s meeting.

“Low-hanging fruit is idiot-proof stuff,” said Aspen resident and former Election Commission member Elizabeth Milias. “What about the stuff that really matters? What about the law?”

Milias, along with Marks, chided the council for focusing too much on “low-hanging fruit” when greater matters are at stake. They implored the council to empower the Election Commission with some decision-making powers, so Aspen’s preferred voting method could be determined and approved by the electorate.

“This is a plea for simplicity, for change,” Marks said. “But if not the Election Commission, then who … and when?”

According to City Attorney John Worcester, if a change is to occur in municipal elections, it has to be done through a charter amendment, which has to be approved by Aspen residents. A potential ballot question offering an alternative voting method would have to be formalized by the end of August to appear on the November 2010 ballet, he said.

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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