Voters’ second choices could loom large in Basalt mayoral election

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Basalt will hold an election April 7 for mayor and three council seats.
Aspen Times file

Some Basalt residents’ second choice for mayor could play a decisive role this year in determining which of the three candidates wins the seat in the April 7 election.

Basalt is using a procedure called instant runoff voting for the first time for the mayoral election. The procedure has been on the books since 2002 but it never has been applied because the mayoral elections never had more than two candidates.

That changed this year when the race attracted Bill Kane, Bill Infante and Rob Leavitt. Incumbent Jacque Whitsitt cannot run again because of term limits.

Town Clerk Pam Schilling told the Basalt Town Council last week she would send a mailer to Basalt’s registered voters this month explaining how instant runoff voting works in an effort to avoid “spoiled” or invalid ballots.

Instead of just voting for their preferred candidate, voters will have the option of ranking the candidates one through three. The ranking will come into play if no candidate gets 50 percent plus one vote in the initial tabulation.

For example, let’s say there is candidate A, candidate B and candidate C in the race. In the initial tally, candidate A has 40 percent of the votes, candidate B has 35 percent and candidate C has 25 percent.

Candidate C would be eliminated, according to the rules of instant runoff voting. Since neither candidate A or B has a majority of votes, the new procedure would be employed to select the winner.

Candidates A and B would keep their votes. Each ballot cast for candidate C, the loser, would be re-examined and the vote would go to the candidate ranked second. If one of the remaining candidates exceeds the 50 percent plus vote one threshold, that candidate would win the mayor’s seat.

Harvie Branscomb, a midvalley resident who is an activist in Colorado election issues, said there are benefits and drawbacks to instant runoff voting. As billed, it determines a winner in one election and eliminates the need for a separate runoff election that costs money and time.

The process requires voters to do their homework. They must think about whom they would like to see as mayor if their first choice doesn’t make the cut.

“With instant runoff voting you have to make that decision ahead of time,” Branscomb said.

The potential drawbacks include voter confusion. “The ballot is more complicated to vote on,” Branscomb said.

For example, if voters mistakenly mark one candidate as favorite and two candidates as their second choice, that ballot would be tossed.

The Basalt ballot hasn’t been printed yet, so Branscomb was unable to examine it. However, since there are only three candidates for mayor, it shouldn’t be too confusing, he said. Voters simply rank the candidates one through three.

Instant runoff voting won’t apply to Basalt’s town council race. There are six candidates vying for three spots. The three candidates with the most votes win seats.

Branscomb said instant runoff voting, also called ranked choice voting, has a lot of supporters, including FairVote, a national organization promoting its use in the presidential primary. It’s becoming more popular in local governments around the country.

Promoters have also said its use by states could have prevented a brokered convention by the Democratic Party. It appears unlikely that any candidate will have enough delegates locked up for nomination as the presidential candidate. The selection will have to be brokered or negotiated. Instant runoff voting proponents contend that a ranking would have honored the will of the people.

Branscomb said his biggest complaint about instant runoff voting is some voters can lose their voice if they don’t rank the candidates beyond their first choice. In addition, the runoff is determined by only a handful of voters — those whose first choice was the losing candidate.

He prefers a modification called “approval voting” where a voter can vote for more than one candidate in the race, if they prefer. All votes are counted and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Aspen voters approved instant runoff voting in 2007 as an alternative to separate, delayed special runoff elections. A committee selected a complicated, customized IRV procedure that drew criticism in the 2009 council election and was later scrapped for the traditional runoff method.

Aspen’s brief trial with instant runoff voting required specially crafted computer software to read the ballots. Branscomb and other election watchers said the procedure was too difficult to audit to check for accuracy.

Basalt election judges will hand count the ballots in the mayor’s race.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.