Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Think IRV was wildly popular in Aspen? Guess again!

IRV supporters in Aspen like to claim that IRV was wildly popular - winning by a 72% margin. But 72% of how many voters? Turns out to be a pretty freaking small number.

Well, I went onto Google for a look-see, and here is what I found.

Voters approve instant runoff voting

John Colson
November 7, 2007
Aspen, CO Colorado,
ASPEN — Aspen voters decided Tuesday that they were tired of lengthy runoff campaigns and going to the polls twice for the same electoral contest.

Or, as Mayor Mick Ireland quipped when voters overwhelmingly approved instant runoff voting, "They're tired of me showing up at their door," a reference to his well-known campaigning tactic of roaming neighborhoods in search of votes.

City voters also approved the other four ballot questions, by wide margins, in an election that drew only 837 voters to the polls.

Did you see the number of people who voted in this election? Out of 5,167 registered voters in the city, they only got 837 voters showing up at the polls. Aspen has roughly the same number of voters in my subdivision, and 837 is roughly the number of registered Democratic voters in my precinct (my subdivision used to be one precinct - but they split it into two precincts a few years ago.

I can't imagine how anyone could claim that anything was wildly popular if only the registered Democrats in my precinct were able to decide something that everyone else in the subdivision had to live by. Sure - the rest of them didn't show up to vote, but that hardly makes it wildly popular!

That comes to just more than 16 percent of the 5,167 registered voters in the city, according to figures the Pitkin County Clerk's office released. By comparison, in the first round of voting in Aspen's municipal election last spring, the turnout was roughly 44 percent.

Because there were no candidates or hotly contested issues in Tuesday's election, observers accurately predicted a low turnout. Only in the absentee ballots were the tallies even close regarding the individual questions.

One of the biggest winners of the evening was the decision to enact instant runoff voting, which won by a margin of 608 to 186, or 72 percent to 22 percent.
So only 837 voters - only 11.7% of 5167 registered voters - decided that Aspen was going to use IRV. That hardly seems fair, does it? One wonders why communities that decided to put an IRV referendum on the ballot do it during lower-turnout elections when fewer people show up to the polls? In the Fall elections, only 16% of voters turnout. In the Spring 2007 elections, 44% turned out.

And according to analysis of elections and runoffs in Aspen, the lowest reported turnout in a June runoff election was 986 votes - or 149 more than voted on the IRV issue. How can IRV supported claim that IRV is the answer to low-turnout runoffs then scheme to put IRV on the ballot at a time when they know there will be low turnout?

Why do IRV backers put IRV on the ballot during lower-turnout elections - what are they afraid of?

Identified as ballot question 2E, instant runoff voting was ahead from very early on election night, beginning with absentee and early voting tallies, as were the other four questions.

Voter Doug Allen said he favored instant runoffs,
which gives voters the option of ranking candidates in order of preference - first, second, third, etc. First choices are tabulated, and if a candidate receives the majority of first choices, or 50 percent plus one vote, he or she is elected. If no one receives the majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated using each voter's preferences, indicated on the ballot.

"It gets it all over with much more expediently," Allen said.
Several voters noted the expense of having a second round of elections - both for the city and candidates, who must muster a follow-up campaign - as sufficient reason to change the system.

Runoffs are "a drain for people after they've already gone through one campaign," said Karen Day-Greenwood. "It's so hard on everybody and expensive."

Voters amended the city charter in November 2000 to institute runoff voting and the first runoff took place in June 2001, when voters chose Helen Klanderud over Rachel Richards for mayor after neither candidate received 50 percent of the votes cast, plus one, in the first go-round.

One voter Tuesday said she voted against 2E, swayed by this year's mayoral race between Mick Ireland and Tim Semrau. Ireland ultimately won the post in the June runoff after the candidates spent an additional month stumping for votes and clarifying their stances on the issues, while voters mulled over their choice for mayor.

"I guess it doesn't hurt to have a second thought about it," she said.

John Colson's e-mail address is
Then there's the "expediency" thing that IRV backers tout. They claim it's easier for voters to go to the polls only one time with IRV rather than going for a partisan primary (and potential runoff) and general election (and potential runoff), or even for non-partisan elections with potential runoffs. They do make a good case saying that runoffs don't usually have a turnout as high as the election which came before the runoff. And they do claim that primaries are for party activists and not the general public, and that voter turnout is lower for primaries than for general elections.

But the whole thing about expediency bothers me. I grew up with a grandfather who was a skilled craftsman - a carpenter and a contractor. My grandfather and his brothers built houses and churches in the Scranton, PA area. And his father was a stonemason back in Italy, where other family members were makes of rope as well. All skilled trades back in the old country. I grew up with a work ethic where if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right. And expediency bothered my grandfather, because it usually means people cut corners and accept a thing that might not done correctly just so they can get it done faster.

It used to be back in the day of buying name-brand merchandise from local stores, the things I bought worked right out of the box - and for many years after. So I didn't mind on those rare occasions when I had to take something back to the store and get a refund or exchange because it didn't work right out of the box (very rarely) or it stopped working at some point.

However, so much junk today is being made by slave labor in China and other countries. It gets a name-brand label slapped on it - and arrives DOA in big box stores. The result is that quality and high standards suffer for world trade, free markets, and for "expediency". Quality dies - and few people object. Mom & Pop stores on Main Street go out of business. Small business owners used to run for local office and sponsor Little League teams because they had a link to the town or city they were based out of. How many managers of "big box" stores run for office? How many Little League teams are sponsored by The Home Depot? I mean - you might as well just pay less for the same junk at Harbor Freight, and pay a few extra bucks for the "warranty" which just means you get to bring it back and swap for a new one forever! Of course, the time you lose not being able to work and go back and forth to the store you won't get back.

The result of this "race to the bottom" is that I get very offended when anyone tries to apply this to our political processes - especially elections. Why? Because it's pretty damned hard to take an election back to the store and get an exchange when the "product" fails to deliver what was promised.

Here are some quotes on "expediency" - see if you feel as I do that "expediency" shouldn't be a factor in deciding what election method to use:

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When virtue is lost, benevolence appears, when benevolence is lost right conduct appears, when right conduct is lost, expedience appears. Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder.” - Lao Tzu, 6th Century B.C. Chinese philosopher

“Where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency.” - James Webb, Senator from VA

“There's an enduring American compulsion to be on the side of the angels. Expediency alone has never been an adequate American reason for doing anything. When actions are judged, they go before the bar of God, where Mom and the Flag closely flank His presence.” - Jonathan Raban, British novelist
The more complicated you make an election, the less likely people are going to be able to understand what went wrong before the election is "certified" by someone who really doesn't know what happened and is only signing off because they don't want to admit they don't understand. Do we really want to out-source our elections to black-box consultants who tell us everything worked well when we really don't have the time or enough information to know for ourselves?

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