Low turnout casts doubt on system
By Janet Urquhart
Published June 9th 2005 in Aspen Times
One of newly elected City Councilman Jack Johnson's first orders of business will be examining alternatives to the city's runoff elections.
Johnson beat opponent Dee Malone in a runoff Tuesday that lured just 19 percent of Aspen's electorate to the polls. He won with the backing of roughly two-thirds of one-fifth of the city's registered voters.
Given the lackluster turnout, it's time Aspen had another discussion about runoffs, Mayor Helen Klanderud agreed. "And, I think we ought to include the community in on that discussion," she said.
Aspen voters approved an amendment to the city charter in November 2000, instituting runoff elections when candidates for mayor and council seats fail to garner a sufficient majority in the May general election.
But Tuesday, after the votes had been tallied, Johnson questioned whether he'd won by the plurality that runoffs were devised to ensure. On May 3, he didn't get the necessary 45 percent of votes cast, plus one, to win election outright. On Tuesday, he claimed 67 percent of the votes but was ultimately elected by fewer votes than he received in May - 662 votes this week versus 823 a month ago.
"We probably should have decided it that night [May 3]," he said.
Aspen's first runoff election, in June 2001, brought out 34 percent of the city's voters to cast ballots in a mayoral race between Klanderud and Rachel Richards. The May election that year boasted a 38 percent turnout, but neither Klanderud nor Richards received 50 percent of the votes cast, plus one, in the first go-round - the threshold for outright victory for mayoral candidates.
In 2003, Councilman Torre beat incumbent Tony Hershey in a runoff that enticed a 32 percent turnout, down from 39 percent in the May election that year.
This year, the hotly contested Burlingame Ranch housing project was the focus of a May ballot issue, helping fuel a 45 percent voter turnout. Far fewer voters made it to the polls on Tuesday to cast a ballot for Johnson or Malone.
"What I'm interested in is why there was such little voter interest in this runoff," Klanderud said.
The community's passion for this year's ballot issues and races was high going into the May election, but it apparently fizzled afterward.
"I'm tired. I think the electorate is tired," Johnson theorized.
"We've kind of done this once and people at this time of year - it's not quite as exciting," Malone said.
And the runoff didn't reverse the results of the May election, when Johnson outpolled Malone, 823-671.
In fact, in each runoff held so far, the winner also beat his or her opponent in the general election. The makeup of the council has been decided in May and re-affirmed with runoff results.
"Helen came in first in May and won; Torre came in first in May, won; Jack came in first in May, won. Get rid of the runoff," said City Clerk Kathryn Koch on Tuesday night.
The month of runoff campaigning forced both candidates to continue raising and spending money, and devoting their time to politicking, but little new information about either individual emerged, Johnson contends.
"There's nothing gained in this month," he said. "There's not a single new thing the voters have learned about me or Dee."
The runoff election cost the city about $6,000 - the same as the cost of a general election, according to Koch.
She brought an alternative to the separate runoff election - Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV - to the council's attention in 2002, when the city and county were buying new voting equipment, but the council ultimately declined to pursue it.
Instant Runoff Voting would require voters to rank candidates in the May election; then, in races where no candidate garners enough votes in the first go-round, the computerized system would retally ballots until winners emerge. It would require just one election.
"My very first bit of research will be into instant runoffs - pros and cons," Johnson said.
"It would be a great idea," Malone said.
Instituting IRV or any other revamping of city elections would require voter approval. And voting equipment requires the approval of the Colorado secretary of state. Thus far, no IRV system has been approved in Colorado, though it has been used elsewhere, Koch said.
Shortening the time between the May election and the runoff - now held about a month later - has also been bandied about, but that could be difficult, because the printing of runoff ballots takes time, Koch said. In addition, absentee ballots need to be mailed to voters and then returned through the mail.