Wednesday, May 27, 2009

IRV does no better than plurality or traditional elections and runoffs in Aspen

It is interesting to see how IRV advocates are touting any community - no matter the size or the results of the election - that uses IRV as a success for the complex and confusing method. I made some comments in an article on IRV coming under fire in the Aspen Times, and some IRV advocate who has drunk the FairyTaleVote kool-aid responded that IRV worked well in Aspen. He told me to look up the history of IRV elections and see why IRV was needed.

Well I did look up IRV, but I saw that IRV was not needed. Why? Because I saw from an analysis of Aspen elections by a writer from the Aspen Times, and it pretty much confirmed what I already know about IRV - that it isn't a more democratic election method.

Aspen voters have used plurality elections, majority elections with runoffs, and now IRV. But as history has shown, the leader in the May general election won in the June runoff. In the recent IRV election, the leader in the first round wins the eventual runoff. In IRV, the first round lead is rarely overcome by other trailing candidates.

So majority elections with runoffs and IRV all deliver wins to the person who has the plurality lead in the first election or round, why use IRV?

Some say that IRV saves money over a traditional election and runoff. That is only true if you accept the rather simplistic argument that one election is cheaper than two and don't honestly and accurately account for all the costs of doing an IRV election - including the cost of election integrity.

Are runoff results predetermined?

Leader in first go-round consistently wins the runoff

By Carolyn Sackariason – The Aspen Times
May 10, 2007

ASPEN — If history does repeat itself, then the results of the upcoming city runoff election are already a done deal.

Since Aspen instituted runoffs in 2001, the majority of voters have selected the same candidates in both elections.

"The runoff positions have not changed the May positions," said City Clerk Kathryn Koch.

There have been three runoff city elections in the past eight years, all of which have generated the same outcomes of the prior votes. In 2001, Helen Klanderud got 850 votes in the mayoral election, and Rachel Richards received 658. In the runoff, Klanderud won.

In May 2003, Torre got 566 votes in the race for City Council, and Tony Hershey received 542. Torre won the runoff. In May 2005, Jack Johnson received 823 votes for council, and Dee Malone got 671 votes. Johnson won in the runoff.

Where it began

The impetus for runoffs was born out of the 1999 mayoral race between Richards and Klanderud - with Richards winning by 14 votes. Some felt it wasn't a clear enough mandate, so City Council posed a charter amendment to the voters in the fall of 2000. Voters approved runoff elections by a margin of 3-to-1, Koch said.

Before the charter amendment, whoever had the most votes won. It was a called a "plurality" election. The runoff system is part of a "majority" election in which a mayoral candidate must win with 50 percent of the vote, plus one, and City Council candidates must win by 45 percent, plus one vote.

Koch estimates that the runoff elections have cost taxpayers more than $21,000. "That doesn't include man-hours," she added.

What's more, history has shown that fewer people make it to the polls in runoff elections. In May 2001, 2,003 people voted; in the June runoff, it was 1,810. In May 2003, 1,903 people voted; in June, 1,566 cast ballots. May 2005 drew 2,318 voters, and the next month attracted 986.

'It helps'

Toni Kronberg is the only current candidate who supports runoff elections - she benefited from the majority election Tuesday. She inched into the runoff by placing third with 487 votes. She'll go up against Steve Skadron, who placed second with 862 votes. Dwayne Romero won a City Council seat outright by placing first with 1,126 votes.

"It helps because it ensures that the person gets the majority," Kronberg said, adding that it's difficult for voters to differentiate among candidates, especially in a field of eight like in Tuesday's election.

Kronberg said that because of the runoff, she has a second opportunity to reach more voters with her message. In order for Kronberg to win, she'll have to get most of the 800 votes that went to other candidates.

"Is it a daunting task? I don't think it is," she said. "It's doable."

The other three candidates all support some sort of election reform that would either do away with runoff elections altogether or implement an instant voting system, where voters would note their second and third choices on the ballot.

"This whole runoff thing, I don't see how the community benefits waiting a whole month," Skadron said, adding he only needed 28 votes to win on Tuesday. "My total was almost double [Kronberg's]."

Mayoral candidates Mick Ireland and Tim Semrau will face off June 5 as well. Ireland, who garnered 1,036 votes, needed 57 more votes to beat Semrau, who brought in 747. Ireland favors moving the municipal election to a time when more people are in town, particularly because the economy has shifted in town, and summer attracts high numbers of residents.

"Instant voting is worth looking at and so is having the election at the end of June," Ireland said.

Problems and solutions

Many candidates have complained over the years that low voter turnout hurt their chances because the elections take place in the height of offseason, when people leave town for extended vacations.

A citizen initiative posed a ballot question in 1989 asking to move the municipal election to the general election in November. It passed, 1,041 to 932. But then a little more than a year later, another citizen initiative prompted a special election in July 1990 asking to repeal the earlier vote. It was approved, 342-175, moving the municipal election back to May. City residents never had a chance to vote on municipal matters in November, another offseason month when fewer people are in town.

Councilman Johnson in July 2006 convinced his colleagues to pursue possible changes to the election system, which ultimately would require voter approval. Koch did some initial research on instant voting, finally determining that it would be nearly impossible with multiple candidates vying for more than one seat up for election on a single ballot, as is the case in the council race. As a result, the effort lost momentum.

State Rep. John Kefalas, D-Larimer, introduced a bill to the state Legislature earlier this year that would create a study group to investigate this summer "advanced voting methods," which includes instant voting and other processes that would allow voters to express preferences on multiple candidates. Lawmakers rejected a proposed pilot project, but the study group is still pursuing the endeavor, said Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a Denver-based nonprofit that supports instant voting.

Flanagan recognizes that there are challenges to instant voting, similar to what Koch has pointed out, but she said she is confident solutions can be found.

Common Cause believes instant voting elects public officials with higher voter turnout and encourages candidates to run campaigns that are less negative.

"Instant runoffs would save municipalities a lot of money, as well as the candidates," she said. "We're hopeful more municipalities pursue advanced voting methods."
But while IRV advocates like to claim that runoffs result in lower turnout, it is interesting to note that more people turned out in the June 2005 runoff (986) than voted in the November 2007 election (837) where IRV passed. And interestingly enough, the IRV vote took place at another time where fewer people are around in Aspen than in the summer months.

Just because someone declares a voting method to be "advanced", it doesn't mean that it is better all around. This article referred to the difficulty voters would have with a slate of 8 candidates. Do you really think that voters ANYWHERE can possibly know enough about all the candidates on a slate to rank them in a meaningful way? That is why Robert's Rules of Order does not recommend IRV (referred to as "Preferential Voting") over traditional elections except for reasons like voting by mail.

Aspen voters went from plurality to a majority election with runoff because they felt that plurality didn't deliver a clear enough mandate. Then they wanted to explore other options (like IRV) because they objected to the higher cost of holding traditional runoff elections with lower turnout. They also considered moving their general election from May to June when more people would be in town. But they later rejected that move.

Interestingly enough, their study commission originally found that it would be too difficult to use IRV to select multiple candidates in an at-large election.

One wonders why Aspen didn't implement easier to understand moves like publicly-financed campaigns, or moving the elections to June, or going back to plurality elections instead of the much more complicated IRV method that their own Election Commission couldn't certify either the method before the election or the results afterwards?

The Town Council of Cary, NC (a community with over 100K registered voters - 20 times as many as Aspen) recently rejected participating in a second IRV pilot election. Cary went from plurality elections to majority general with runoff (if needed) and then decided to participate in the 2007 IRV pilot. In 2009, the Cary Town Council rejected going back to plurality because they liked the idea of majority winners. But they rejected IRV because it was too experimental and didn't deliver performance as promised (mostly that it didn't ensure a majority winner in a single election). They didn't have the complex and convoluted batch multi-member election method to deal with, otherwise I am sure that even Erv Portman would have turned thumbs down to it.

And IRV didn't really save all that much money. True Ballot was paid $7,500 to run the IRV election, while the previous three runoff elections cost $21,000 - or $7,000 per election. Even though the costs of runoff elections didn't include the man-hours, runoffs were $500 less than the cost of doing IRV.

But does the bill for IRV include the cost of election integrity and transparency? I don't think so.

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