Voters: Something new for mayoral races?

Katie Klingsporn // Published September 9, 2008 in The Daily Planet
Telluride, CO -- A handful of Telluriders have a strategy for voting they think would work better for the town’s mayoral races. And now, it’ll be up to the voters to decide if they want to try it out.

Late last week, the Telluride Town Council voted 6-to-1 to put a citizen-initiated ordinance calling for the use of instant runoff voting in mayoral races on the November ballot.

Chris Myers and Ernest Eich of the local public-advocacy group This Republic Can collected nearly 130 verified signatures necessary to put the initiative on the ballot.

They say instant runoff voting, or IRV, can help ensure a true majority and eliminate the spoiler effect that sometimes occurs in a three-way race. IRV allows voters to rank candidates when more than two people are vying for an elected office. That way, if no one receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is tossed out, and those votes are redistributed according to ranking.

Last November, Stu Fraser was elected Telluride’s mayor in three-way race that saw him edging out Terry Tice by less than 20 votes. Some people wondered how votes would have tallied had it been a two-man race.

But Myers said instant runoff voting has been on his mind much longer.

“It’s not something that was sort of born yesterday,” he said.

Instant Runoff Voting has been adopted by cities like San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., Sarasota, Fla., and more locally, Aspen and Basalt.

Eich said Telluride could benefit from this type of voting because it often has three candidates running for mayor. It helps avoid the spoiler situation, ensures the winner gets full majority, and has major potential for future presidential races, he said.

“There’s a lot of different angles and they’re all saying, let’s try it out,” he said.

The ordinance proposes a trial run for three mayoral cycles. During that run, the town council would not be able to overturn it, Eich said, and after three years, the town can decide if it wants to continue IRV or not.

When Eich and Myers presented their signatures last week, the town council had the choice of either putting it on the ballot or adopting it on first reading.

Fraser said he supported putting it on the ballot because voting should be up to the voters.

“I just feel that it has to go to the electorate because they need to be saying how their votes are counted,” he said. “The public needs to say, ‘Yeah, we want to do the ranked voting,’ or ‘No, we don’t want to do the ranked voting,’ not us.”

Council member Thom Carnevale said much the same, but added that he believes the campaign will dispel most of the hesitancy to support it.

“I think it’s the wave of the future,” Carnevale said. “With this type of voting you have a majority, and that’s quite important.”

Council member David Oyster, who was the lone no vote, was in favor of just adopting it, he said.

He generally supports putting things to the voters, but with November’s ballot stuffed as it is with ballot questions, Oyster said he’s afraid voters will get bogged down with too much information and just vote no.

“I think the ballot is going to be really complicated and really long,” he said. “The voters might turn [the IRV initiative] down just because it’s too complex.”

But getting it on the ballot is precisely what the initiative’s backers hoped for.

“It was our hope that it would be put on our ballot because it’s something that needs discussion in our community,” Myers said.

Myers and Eich realize that not everyone recognizes or understands instant runoff voting, but they don’t fear voter fatigue. Getting the initiative on the ballot is just the beginning, Myers said, and there will be ample education.

“What’s next is to start educating the community on what instant runoff voting is,” Myers said. “We intend on spreading the word.”

Judging from his conversations around town, Myers said, there’s definitely support behind it.

“We’ve gotten a lot of very enthusiastic responses from people who would like to see a better democracy,” Myers said.

Myers added that he thinks this is a good year for it because it coincides with a presidential election. Instant runoff voting could move from small communities to state levels, and eventually, to presidential races, where it could change the impacts third-party candidates (think Ralph Nader) have historically had on elections, Myers said.

“I think it’s a great sort of sounding board for people to see the potential of what it could do,” he said.