Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw | AspenTimes.com
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Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I doubt that they make the lists of Famous Last Words, but among the most common shouts from those who are about to die must be this one: “Hey! Watch this!”

That is the call of the reckless, the egocentric, the just plain stupid.

But it is also the cry of the pioneer, the free spirit, the inventor.

Sometimes that cry is followed by death; sometimes by great triumph.

Once upon a time (as all good fairy tales begin), Aspen was that kind of place: recklessly, stupidly willing to take a wild risky chance ” just to see what happened.

Given Aspen’s heritage, that’s the way it ought to be.

This town was founded by miners, driven perhaps by greed, but sustained by their willingness to take chances in pursuit of their dreams.

And, of course, Aspen’s rebirth was another recklessly wild idea: take a failed mining town, struggling to survive, and turn it into a major international resort, a center of athletics, art and intellectual pursuit.

Oh yeah, there’s a sure bet. Even looking back, it doesn’t seem as if success should have been obvious. And yet, what a grand success it has been (and may well continue to be).

And ” just one more, just for fun ” how about Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff of Pitkin County? Just to refresh everyone’s memory, Hunter carried the vote in the city of Aspen. It was only the more careful, conservative voters in the rest of the county who kept him out of office. Was that a good thing? We’ll never know. But for certain it said a lot about the spirit of Aspen.

For better or for worse, Aspen was willing to take a wild chance and bet on wacky to win.

That was then. This is now.

And now we are wrapped up in a nasty little snarkfest about a new election system known as instant runoff voting.

The idea is to avoid the runoff elections that seem to have become standard procedure in this feisty little town, where bunches of candidates fracture the vote and no one gets a majority the first time around.

Strictly personally, I like the instant runoff idea.

It seems kind of cool. Plus, it saves time. And money. And brain damage.

Take your pick. There must be something on that list that appeals to you.

Obviously there is. Aspen voters approved the idea by a 3-1 margin in 2007.

But now, as time to put the system into action draws near, a few people have become outraged. Wait, make that OUTRAGED!!!

They throw a lot of math into the mix, trying to show that the new system is unreliable and undemocratic. Fair enough. We can take a quick look at that in a minute.

But the point they keep raising at the beginning of each screed is: This has never been tried before!

To which I can only say: So what?

Lots of things have never been tried before. Some of them are undoubtedly terrible ideas. Some of them are brilliant. But the fact that they’ve never been tried before doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all.

Requiring candidates for public office to have their right hand amputated at the wrist has never been tried before. I don’t think we need to try it to decide it’s a terrible idea ” and I don’t think that the fact that it’s never been tried would be an appropriate part of any debate about trying it.

It’s just a bad idea.

But, as noted, instant runoff voting has some very strong appeal.

Now I will cheerfully admit (because I’m a cheerful kind of guy) that fiddling with different approaches to the instant runoff system can produce different results from the same set of ballots.

At first, that does indeed seem like a major problem. How can we approve a voting system that gives different results depending on what math you use to count the votes?

Our democracy demands that elections be unquestionably fair. We need results we can count on. We need results that everyone agrees on.

Right? Of course.

But that overlooks the fact that we don’t have a system like that right now.

On a national level, well, does the term “dimpled chad” ring a bell?

But even on the local level, when it comes to this specific issue ” how to deal with runoff elections ” we do not have a clear, fair system right now.

Maybe we can skip over the trouble and expense of holding a second election. Those are valid concerns, to be sure, but maybe we should agree that concerns about trouble and expense should not be allowed to interfere with holding fair elections.

But beyond that, a runoff that’s held a month after the main election has serious problems of its own.

To begin with, there’s the loss of public interest. It’s hard to get people to pay attention a second time. It’s hard to get them to take the trouble to vote a second time.

Plus, candidates are eliminated before the runoff. How is that decision made? Why not let new candidates join in?

To quote that great political sage Donald Rumsfeld, “Democracy is messy.”

And the possible messiness of the instant runoff system is no messier than the mess we have right now. It may be a different mess ” but it’s still a mess.

And, by the way ” to note another argument that gets thrown into the mix ” why is it immoral for incumbent politicians to be involved in setting up the system for the next election? As long as the new system does not automatically favor them, what’s the problem?

More to the point: who else should be doing it? The losers from the last election?

But none of this is my main concern.

I am really mostly bothered by the claim that we can’t do something because no one’s done it before.

Hell, maybe that’s the best reason why we should give it a try.

Let’s take the lead ” and wait for the rest of the world to catch up with us.

The way we used to.


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