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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Instant runoff voting: The power over the ballot box, in Aspen

There's a new kind of black box voting - its called instant runoff voting. Aspen Colorado's experiment with this controversial election method last year brought added scrutiny to the city's election process. The results of Aspen's May 5, 2009 instant runoff voting election raised lingering questions reminiscent of the famous Hunter Thomas' "Freak Power Campaign" for sheriff in 1970.

The power over the ballot box

Dear Editor:

In 1881, Aspen's first voters, all 332, elected a government to usher in “law and order” to control explosives, vagrancy, nudity, graffiti, and other menaces. In 1970, Hunter Thompson's “Freak Power” campaign for sheriff was inspired by Joe Edwards' mayoral defeat precipitated by seven absentee ballots. Precinct results showed that Thompson won the city vote but was trounced in his own Woody Creek by 300 to 90, losing the county and the election.

We know the 1881 voter count, but not why the 2009 computerized official ballot count exceeds the number of ballots recorded by certified voting machines. The 2009 results include innovative individual ballot instant runoff vote (IRV) interpretations, but absentee and precinct data was not reported, although it was readily available in 1970.

In our previous elections, grassroots volunteers managed the counting process and reported results directly from neighborhood precincts. Many partisan supporters carefully scrutinized the vote counting. Can you imagine Hunter trusting government officials, saying, “after you count the ballots, let us know whether you won.”

After 128 years of citizen-run elections, in 2009 Aspenites basically turned over their oversight responsibilities to the government and its contractors running complex and uncertified software. Our election became the ultimate black box with a single night of ballot openness. We cast our ballots and after the election night software magic — abracadabra! — we have winners. Imagine Thompson's choice words if he had been defeated by a government-created IRV-type tabulation method that no one tested, few watched and fewer comprehend.

While the mayoral race was easier to tabulate, and Ireland actually achieved over 50 percent of the re-allocated votes, the council race machinations were baffling. Two candidates won by receiving a false majority counted from a subset of the voters' ballots, not based on the majority of “total votes cast” which the charter requires.

The public pillorying and shadowy dismissal of the Election Commission without factual basis speaks volumes about council's willingness to silence citizens' election concerns.

My litigation does not impact the election outcome. It is to achieve future transparency so citizens can resume taking responsibility for their elections, and verifying them if they want to. No matter what our voting method is, citizens cannot safely relinquish control to mysterious error-prone software programmed by government contractors working behind police tape.

Public access to ballot images is valuable for this IRV election as well as for future elections. I plan to post on the Internet all the images as previously done for Humboldt County California and challenged ballots in the Coleman/Franken race.

The goal is to make black-box elements of our elections verifiable by anyone. What will we see on our ballot images? Lots of ordinary black ovals. No one anticipates signs of mischief or error. I hope to return a measure of power to Aspen voters, even after centralization and mechanization have distracted us from the crucial scene of citizen vote counting.

“Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” — Joseph Stalin

Marilyn Marks


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