When Telluride voters hit the polls on Tuesday, they opened up a different looking town ballot. Instead of just marking their favorite mayoral candidate like usual, voters were asked to rank the candidates by first, second and third preference.
It represented the town’s first foray into instant runoff voting, a rare type of voting that’s used in elections in which more than two candidates are running for one spot, such as mayor. Instant runoff voting, or IRV, is a ranked system designed to help ensure a true majority win and eliminate the “Nadar effect” that can happen in a three-way race.
The new system, which is more complicated than the traditional plurality voting and requires some forehead wrinkling to work out mentally, posed some logistical risks for election judges and ballot counters, and Town Clerk MJ Schillaci had warned that results could be days late.
Despite that, things went smoothly on Election Day, voters seemed to barely notice the difference and Mayor Stu Fraser was reelected by a 60 percent vote, a majority win, which meant that the complex redistribution of third-place votes wasn’t even triggered.
“It was very easy … first choice, second choice,” said Harold Wondsel, a town voter. Despite the ease of the system, Wondsel wasn’t convinced that it’s the best way to conduct elections. Offering several choices kind of mucks up the process of determining the most popular candidate, he said.
“When it comes right down to it … the old-fashioned way, if the winner gets 27 percent of the vote, they are still the most popular candidate,” Wondsel said.
Wendy Brooks, another voter, said she likes the concept.
“I think it’s a good idea. It makes a better discussion of the issues,” she said. As for confusion, she said, there was none for her.
“It was so well presented that I don’t think anybody could have found it complicated,” Brooks said.
The election might have looked easy to outsiders. But Schillaci’s office put in months of work to prepare for the election, which was hand-counted. It required more staff time in training, more judges and volunteers on Election Day and Schillaci expects it to be more expensive than the previous election, though she hasn’t tabulated the total costs yet.
Schillaci started working with former County Clerk Peggy Nerlin months ago to prepare for an IRV election and iron out any wrinkles in the system. Together, they trialed it several times with fake ballots until they understood how to count it. Schillaci trained her staff with three trials, ordered tools to make it easier and reconfigured some things on Election Day — adding positions to ease the process.
“We ordered a lot of tools to make this work,” she said.
Judges were prepared for a variety of things, including provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots are triggered when a voter has outstanding issues with their registration. They can become provisional when a voter has been left off the registration list even though they are registered, or if their name has changed due to marriage or if their address has changed.
What happens then is that the person is allowed to vote, but their ballot is sealed in a “provisional” envelope. The clerk then has do investigate the person’s situation and determine if they are in fact registered to vote before approving and counting the ballot.
Schillaci was worried that if her staff couldn’t resolve the provisional ballots on Election Night, it would stall the process of counting IRV votes by hours or even days.
Judges lucked out — there were 39 provisional ballots on Tuesday, and all were resolved within a couple hours of the polls closing. It helped that judges began resolving them earlier than usual.
Schillaci had also called the mathematics department at the University of Colorado and found a professor who volunteered to writer an algorithm for the town. The professor wrote a formula the town could use to determine at what point outstanding provisional ballots could affect the final vote. The town even had retired math teacher Seth Berg on hand to plug in the numbers. In the end, he wasn’t needed.
Despite sending out brochures to all registered voters in town, Schillaci said she still received a lot of phone calls and questions this year.
Voters may have been surprised when they opened their but, but they were the ones who made IRV voting possible. Telluriders passed a citizen-initiated ballot measure in 2008 that ushered the new kind of voting into town elections. It won 67 percent of the vote.
Council member Chris Myers, who was one of the mayoral candidates on Tuesday, brought the issue to the community before the last election.
“I’m excited for the community of Telluride to be one of three in the country to give instant runoff voting a try,” he said on Tuesday. “I think it will prove itself out as giving a better picture of the will of the people.”
When asked about the complexities of the counting, Myers said that it’s worth it.
“I think our culture needs to learn patience,” he said.