September 14, 2010
In November Aspen voters will have a choice to keep the instant runoff voting (IRV) system, or return to the system in place before 2009. It may help to understand how IRV elects candidates with a majority of the vote, even if the slate has a good number of candidates.
Simply stated, IRV eliminates bottom candidates until only two are left, same as with a real runoff. The higher vote getter of the two finalists then wins. The winner of that contest is guaranteed to have a majority, as long as there is not a tie, because there are only two candidates.
Actually the mechanics of IRV are slightly different. A threshold is calculated first, and the winner must have more votes than that threshold. The threshold is set just above 50 percent of the valid ballots cast, to insure a majority. In May 2009 there were 2,486 ballots deemed valid for the City Council races, and the winning threshold was set at 1,244 votes. Derek Johnson won the first seat with 1,233 votes, and Torre won the second seat with 1,073 votes.
But hey, neither candidate reached the 1,244 vote minimum threshold to win! What’s up with that? Derek Johnson won with votes equaling 49.6 percent of valid ballots cast, and Torre won with 43.2 percent. Neither really got a majority, right?
The explanation given for this is that only the ballots for the two finalists in each race matter at all. If you showed up to vote and you ranked every candidate except for Derek Johnson and Jack Johnson, you effectively did not show up to vote for City Council seat 1. If you didn’t vote for Torre or Michael Behrendt, you were not there for seat 2, no matter how many candidates you did vote for. In this case when it was declared that the winners had a majority, your ballot was not considered at all.
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To make sure your ballot was considered in the end you had to rank every candidate, even ones you really didn’t want. Only 20 percent of Aspen voters did so. This differs from a real runoff, where you find out who the two finalists are, and you vote for one of them. IRV assumes that if you didn’t happen to rank any of the final candidates, it’s as though you decided not to vote in the “runoff” at all. Sometimes a simple majority isn’t so simple.