Instant runoff voting raises questions |

Instant runoff voting raises questions

Abigail Eagye

The City Council explored options Tuesday for instant runoff voting in Aspen, but council members want more information before agreeing to put the issue to voters in November.Currently, the city holds a general election, and if a candidate does not garner the necessary votes to win, a “runoff” election between the two candidates who received the most votes is scheduled for a later date. A candidate for mayor must win 50 percent plus one vote, and a candidate for a council seat must win 45 percent plus one vote to earn a spot. Four out of five current council members were elected through runoff votes.Voter turnout at runoff elections is typically lower than at the original election, and the cost to stage the second election is equal to the first, City Clerk Kathryn Koch said. That means the city has to pony up between $7,500 and $10,000 for each general election, plus an additional $7,500-$10,000 for a runoff election with a ballot that might ask only one question.Since voters approved runoff elections in 2000, the city has seen one runoff in every regular municipal election. In each case, voter turnout decreased in the runoff election, by 3 percent in 2001, by 7 percent in 2003 and by 25 percent in 2005 (from 44 percent of registered voters in the general election to a dismal 19 percent in the runoff).Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit group FairVote, spoke to the council about how instant runoff voting could work.Voters in a general election would rank all the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate met the requirements to win, votes could be retallied immediately in one of several ways: The candidate with the lowest number of votes would be dropped, and ballots in which that candidate was the No. 1 choice would be retallied with the No. 2 choice advancing to the No. 1 slot. The process could be repeated as many times as necessary to accommodate multiple candidates; or All but the top two candidates would be dropped. All ballots would be recounted to compare choices for only the two remaining candidates.According to Richie, several cities, including San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., have already introduced instant runoff voting, and those cities have found it overwhelmingly popular. Koch and Councilman Jack Johnson recently traveled to San Francisco to observe as that city unveiled instant runoff voting. Koch said avoiding the second election saved the city roughly $5 million.Johnson supports some form of instant runoff voting both for its cost-saving factors and because of the traditionally higher voter turnout at the general election. He also said voters would be free to vote for a dark horse candidate without fear of “wasting” their vote, because if their first choice performed too poorly, he or she would be dropped, and the voter’s second choice would count.Councilwoman Rachel Richards was concerned about how instant runoff voting would change the way candidates campaign. She speculated candidates might choose to address issues less specifically in an effort to appeal to a broader group of voters in hopes of being their second choice. That would mean less-focused discussions about the issues, she said. She was also concerned the ballots would be confusing. Although Richie said that voters in Burlington had no problem understanding the ballot during the city’s first instant runoff election, Richards’ concerns were not unfounded, as evidenced by the fact that the council itself wasn’t totally clear on the procedures presented to them Tuesday night.The ranking process was confusing enough in itself, but the processes became more convoluted as Aspen’s unique requirements were incorporated. The 45 percent requirement for council members, for example, poses difficulties for a system which, Richie said, works best if a 50 percent majority of votes is necessary for a candidate to be elected.By the end of the meeting, several council members still had questions about the nuances that emerge when considering the myriad voting scenarios in Aspen. Nonetheless, the council appeared content to put the issue to voters – once it’s clear exactly what they would be voting on. The council directed Koch to outline the potential processes.For more information about everything from how instant runoff voting works to sample ballots, go to Search the website for “Miss Piggy,” and you can find a link to a demonstration of instant runoff voting using Muppets as candidates.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is