The ABCs of instant runoff voting Tuesday in Aspen

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” With a new election method this year, the estimated 2,500 Aspen residents expected to show up at the polls Tuesday can say to the 13 candidates running for public office that they voted for all of them.

Voters this year will participate in instant runoff voting (IRV) via a customized method that hasn’t been tried before anywhere in the country. City Clerk Kathryn Koch, Jim True, special counsel for the city, as well as a citizen-appointed election commission and task force, have been hashing out details of the IRV system for months.

What they’ve come up with is a hybrid of other systems used around the country. But Aspen’s method has never before been tried in the United States because local elections involve electing multiple City Council candidates.

The council adopted IRV in response to a mandate by the majority of Aspen residents, who voted in November 2007 to eliminate runoff elections, which had required a June election if council candidates didn’t receive 45 percent plus one, and if the mayor didn’t get 50 percent, plus one of the vote in the May election.

Now, candidates will need to receive 50 percent of the vote, plus one to win. The IRV rests on a threshold of votes counted. All first and second rankings are counted, and the two candidates with the most total votes who have reached the threshold are elected.

On Tuesday, Aspen voters will rank their choices for mayor and two council members. Nine people are running for council and four for mayor.

The 13 candidates who appear on the ballot were placed randomly by picking their names out of a hat ” a lottery system is required by state statute, Koch said.

There’s no proof that a candidate’s respective placement on the ballot makes a difference on the outcome ” in the past four elections, candidates who’ve won have appeared fourth and sixth.

The biggest difference for voters this year is that they ought to rank their choices all the way through if they want their votes to count. In the past, voters have only chosen their first picks.

“If you only rank two, you have a good chance of not participating in the instant runoff,” True said. “The further you rank, the more likely you will participate.”

It’s likely that there will be at least one round of instant runoff tabulations in the council race because there are so many candidates. That means voters can rank up to nine choices, with the first two being their top preferences.

“Ranking all the way through will not hurt your first and second choices,” True said.

Koch said of the 700 or so people who have voted early, many asked her if they can just vote for one candidate.

“I tell them to rank as far as they are comfortable,” she said. “There’s been this urban legend that your ballot will be kicked out if you don’t rank all the way through.”

Koch said she has noticed that some people have made the mistake of ranking all of their choices in one column, instead of in all nine.

About 5 percent of the ballots cast thus far have been spoiled, she said. In past elections, Koch said as few as two ballots have been spoiled.

The voting machine where people place their ballots is designed to spit out improper ones, which allows a voter to correct their rankings.

TrueBallot Inc., an election service, has been hired by the city of Aspen to conduct the election.

Caleb Kleppner, vice president for the company’s Northeast region, and John L. Seibel, TrueBallot’s president, will be in Aspen to observe Tuesday night’s election. On Monday afternoon, a logic and accuracy test will be conducted with mock ballots. All of the candidates have been invited to watch the process, Koch said.

Kleppner has written a new computer program to count the scanned ballots.

“His count is the official count,” Koch said.

Results and tabulations for instant runoff races will be displayed in real time on a screen in City Council chambers in the basement of City Hall on election night.

See for election returns on Tuesday.

If one candidate reaches a threshold, that person is elected, and the next two highest voter getters enter an instant runoff. The ballots are recounted with the highest ranking for the candidate still remaining, which is one vote counted for that individual. If no candidate receives the threshold in the initial tabulation, then the four highest vote getters enter the instant runoff. The candidate who receives the fewest votes will be eliminated, and the candidate with the most votes is elected.

The tabulation continues for the election of the second City Council seat. In this round, the three candidates who initially made the instant runoff but who were not elected in the first round continue on. Each ballot is recounted, and the highest ranking for a candidate who is continuing will be counted as a vote for that person. The candidates with the fewest votes will be eliminated, and so on until someone gets the most votes.

To learn more, log onto http://www.aspen