Instant runoff election a model of transparency and verifiability

By Caleb Kleppner
Published September 17th 2009 in Aspen Times
Some recent commentary on the instant runoff (IRV) election has distorted the facts and missed the big picture about Aspen's May election.

The big picture is that the election was a model of transparency, verifiability and honesty, and the post-election audit was among the most thorough ever conducted. It also had the highest voter turnout in a municipal election in Aspen history and elected a clear majority winner for mayor without a June runoff election.

Let's start with transparency. Ballots were first counted in polling places using the county's Premier Accu-vote optical scanners. Then, in plain view of the public and cable viewers, TrueBallot Inc. scanned every ballot using commercial imaging scanners, processed the data on the images, and publicly reviewed every ballot not once but twice to make sure the computer interpretation of ballots matched human interpretation of voter intent. These images were projected publicly in City Hall and broadcast on cable television. The Election Commission reviewed all potentially ambiguous ballots to assure that they were counted as the voter intended according to state law. The IRV tallies were conducted and announced on Election Night.

In this election, unlike virtually any other public election in the country, members of the public could observe the removal of ballots from voting machines, the transportation of the ballots to City Hall, the removal of ballots from sealed bags in City Hall, the scanning of ballots, and the review of ballots for voter intent.

But there's more. The city adopted an ordinance to make all election data public, and the city clerk has provided CD-ROMs with all of the election data to anyone who asked. This means that members of the public can perform independent verifications of the election results, and several have done so. The city also explained on its website what data would be produced in each stage of the processing and how to independently verify all of the data.

It was also conducted honestly, with ample public notice of the rules and procedures that would be in effect, full observation of all steps, and full release of election data. And yes, when we made a mistake in the IRV tally for mayor � a mistake that affected a small number of ballots only after a candidate had already reached a majority of votes and therefore been elected � the city made that information public. But more importantly, the data necessary to verify the IRV tallies was already public, so if there had been any error affecting the outcome, it would have come to light.

And if all that wasn't enough, the city conducted a post-election audit that far exceeded anything required by law. First, the city randomly chose 10 percent of the ballots to make sure that the rankings on those ballots matched the electronic information stored. There were no discrepancies. Then the city performed independent verification that every ballot was tallied correctly in the IRV tallies. The independent tally for mayor is posted on the city's website, and again, there were no discrepancies in the mayoral and council tallies.

You really can't have more transparency and verifiability than that, unless you make the actual ballot images public. Right now, state law doesn't permit the city to release the ballot images, but if it did, I'm sure it would happily release them. Of course, the city already publicly verified a random sample of 10 percent of the ballots, which should give rational members of the public pretty high confidence that all of the ballots were recorded correctly.

Whether you like IRV or hate IRV, Aspen's election was a model of transparency and verifiability, and American elections would be improved if they incorporated elements of Aspen's election.

Caleb Kleppner is a vice president at TrueBallot Inc., which has run elections for municipalities, labor unions, associations, state Democratic and Republican parties, and others over the past 15 years.