Public weighs instant runoff in mock election

By Curtis Wackerle
Published February 19th 2009 in Aspen Daily News
Aspen City Council on Monday will choose between two different methods of instant runoff voting, which, as was demonstrated to the public at an open house on Wednesday night, could produce two different outcomes in City Council races.

City officials produced a make-believe election for council with eight candidates competing for two open seats. There will be two open seats when some form of instant runoff voting is tried in Aspen for the first time this May. The mayor’s seat will also be up for grabs. It is unknown at this point who will be running, or if incumbents Jack Johnson and Jackie Kasabach, on council, and Mayor Mick Ireland, will seek re-election.

One instant runoff method is known as single count, sequential elimination. In this method, voters rank their preferences, one through eight, although voters can rank as many candidates as they feel comfortable. All ballots are counted for their first choice, and if no candidate receives a majority, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated and those who picked the loser first have their votes reassigned to their second choice. This process continues through as many recounts as necessary until one candidate gets a majority, and thus a council seat.

To determine the second candidate under this method, there is a nearly identical process, except anyone who picked the first winner as their first choice has their second choice vote counted as their first. Votes are counted and re-counted until a second candidate get a majority.

Under this system, if a person only votes for one candidate, or does not rank all the candidates, their ballot wouldn’t be counted if or when the candidates they do rank are eliminated. If you only vote for one candidate, and that candidate goes on to win, then your ballot would be counted in each runoff round.

The sequential vote method is recommended by Fair Vote, a Maryland nonprofit which advocates for instant runoff voting. This method, however, was not selected by a city committee that studied instant runoff voting stating last fall.

The committee’s preferred method is known as two-vote, batch elimination. Under this method, which uses an identical ballot as the other method, voters’ first and second choices are counted, given equal weight, and assigned to the candidates. The half of the candidates with the lowest vote totals are eliminated, and ballots are recounted. The next highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated is counted. This re-counting goes on until there are two candidates who have a majority.

This method was supported by the committee because it most closely replicates Aspen’s current system, in which voters vote for their two favorite candidates.

But there’s also a problem that has led some, including Councilman Jack Johnson, to argue against this method. With the elimination of half of the field after the first count, someone’s sixth ranked candidate could defeat their first ranked candidate, if that voter’s third, fourth and fifth ranked candidates were eliminated in the batch elimination.

A criticism of the sequential elimination is that it gives more weight to middle-ranked candidates. This explained the discrepancy in outcomes between the two counts. In the sequential elimination, a candidate who was favored by many as their third choice won the second council seat. The batch elimination puts more emphasis on people’s first and second choices.

With both methods, the same candidate received the first council seat.

The mayoral method wasn’t addressed at Wednesday’s meeting. In the mayor’s race, the bottom half candidates would be eliminated after the first count and votes would be reassigned until one candidate secures a majority.

Electronic voting firm True Ballot is writing software that will allow machine counts of the instant runoff ballots, which will be fed through an optical scanner.

City Council will presumably decide between the two methods at a public hearing during Monday’s regular meeting.

Aspen voters approved implementing an instant runoff system in the November 2007 election by a 76 percent margin.

To view a demonstration of both instant runoff options, head to the video gallery.