What’s the secret behind ballots?
August 12, 2009
Months after Aspen’s May election, the town is still lathered up about the voting process – not the results, but the method of counting.
The town’s first experiment with Instant Runoff Voting remains controversial. One could argue that the controversy has been stirred up by a vocal minority of citizens who didn’t like the outcome, but it’s more than that.
IRV was just plain confusing, especially since voters were asked to rank their choices among nine candidates for City Council, actually checking boxes for candidates they didn’t like or whose names they may not even have recognized.
Nobody in Aspen has argued that the IRV system used in May was perfect. At best, we’d say it was adequate. It served the purpose of avoiding an expensive runoff election, in which significantly fewer Aspenites would have participated.
Still, it was far from perfect. And that’s not a sufficient standard for the cornerstone of our local electoral system.
So why, we ask, would the city of Aspen refuse to release the ballots to a group that wants to perform a thorough, independent review of the IRV process? We understand the argument that the ballots are private, and that it’s nobody’s business how individual voters voted. We understand that Marilyn Marks, a vocal and sometimes shrill critic of City Hall, is among the people proposing the review.
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But we just don’t see the risk in providing the ballots for review. There is no personal information on the ballots themselves and no risk of individual voters’ choices being revealed; we doubt most voters even recall how they themselves voted in the nine-candidate council race. Moreover, along with the conservative Marks, one of the individuals calling for the review is Harvie Branscomb, co-chair of the Eagle County Democratic Party and a member of Coloradans for Voting Integrity. Branscomb has told the Aspen City Council that a bipartisan review of Aspen’s IRV system would make a good case study for both the Colorado General Assembly and the Secretary of State’s Office.
It’s quite possible that this inquiry may lead to a better IRV model for Aspen and other jurisdictions. On the other hand, it could credibly validate Aspen’s system. We’d argue that either outcome is a good one.
Thus far, the city has refused to provide Aspen’s 2,600 ballots to Branscomb and Marks, and city officials may end up having to legally defend their decision.
Aspen’s new council and mayor have been seated and sworn in. The period to contest the May election is over. What’s the worst that could come of an independent review?
The city should err on the side of openness and disclosure. An honest review of the IRV process is in everyone’s best interest, regardless of political affiliation, and refusing to release the ballots makes it look like the city is either stonewalling a political opponent or trying to hide something.