A push for tiered elections

Patrick Healy // Published September 2, 2008 in The Daily Planet
Telluride, Colo. - After Stu Fraser was elected Telluride’s mayor in a three-way race last November, some people around Telluride wondered what would have happened if only two candidates had been on the ballot. Would Fraser have won? Did Chance Leoff’s candidacy play a Nader-like spoiler effect? These lingering questions are a major factor behind a ballot question that will call for Telluride to adopt a new kind of voting system in its mayoral elections.

That system — instant runoff voting — allows voters to rank candidates when more than two people are vying for an elected office. The theory is, if no one receives a majority of votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is tossed out, and the polls instead count voters’ second choice candidates.

In Telluride’s last mayoral election, for example, Chance Leoff would have been dropped after the first count, and his 81 votes would be parceled out to Stu Fraser or Terry Tice, depending on which man voters had chosen as their #2 pick.

Chris Myers, Ernest Eich and the local public-advocacy group This Republic Can are behind the initiative, which is formally called a citizen-initiated ordinance. It takes 120 certified signatures to put a grass-roots measure like this one on ballots in Telluride, and Myers was out yesterday collecting the last 19 signatures he needed.

“It’s something I’ve been interested in pursuing for a long time,” Myers said. “Telluride first-hand experienced the difficulties of not having instant runoff voting in the last election.”

Fraser won the mayoral election by a 15-vote margin last November, winning about 46 percent of the vote total. Under an instant runoff system, that plurality alone wouldn’t have been enough to secure victory, and the election would have been instantaneously recounted without Leoff. “You essentially hold an election until somebody wins with a majority,” Myers said. “In the 2000 election had we had IRV, people could have voted for Nader with their second choice being Gore, and Gore would have likely been the winner of that election.”

Instant runoff voting has been gaining ground in recent years, and was adopted in San Francisco. Advocates argue that it’s an easy way to avoid expensive, drawn-out runoff elections that only attract diehard partisans. They say it eliminates the spoiler effect from elections, when a candidate like Ralph Nader or Bob Barr can swing the result of election by siphoning off a thin layer of voters.

And in a way, the United States once had a system that resembles preference-based voting. The first U.S. vice presidents were runners-up in the first presidential election, a cause of much friction between Adams and Jefferson and the motive behind the Twelfth Amendment.

Opponents to instant runoff voting say the current system works, and that such a drastic change isn’t necessary, or that winning by plurality is good enough. Some people argue that it essentially gives minority voters two votes — in that you can have your Nader and eat Gore, too.

But Eich, who’s supporting the measure, said it will clear up elections in town.

“If nothing else, it’ll make it so people can’t complain so much about the result of an election,” he said. “It’ll make for a cleaner process for who gets chosen. People complain about the election before it. They complain after it. It gives a more representative vote.”

Originally, Myers and other Telluriders considered fronting two other ballot initiatives. One would have assessed a fee for dark, empty second homes; the other would have given credits or subsidies to people who agreed to only sell their houses to full-time residents.

But with the medical center, school district, town and county asking voters for millions of dollars for new projects, and a series of charter amendments on the ballot, the locals figured they would do better only
proposing one initiative.

“There’s already too much crap on there,” Eich said.