Sunday, August 30, 2009

Aspen Times: The city’s waning credibility

The online version of the Aspen Times had a glitch so this was seen in print version only.


The city’s waning credibility
Paul Menter

With the exception of how we choose to value ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones, virtually everything important is rooted in the results of elections. Think of their impact on our lives. The condition of schools where our children learn, how we protect the environment, our consideration of those who look, speak and believe differently than we do, and most fundamentally the people we wish to represent our interests as elected officials. All are decided by elections; our collective expressions of who we are as a community, a state, a nation. Maintaining election credibility is crucial to a free society. Once elections lose their credibility so does everything else, except for the use of force as a means for imposing political will. The road to Aspen’s May 2009 election is strewn with the wreckage of credibility-eroding acts in the City Council’s drive to implement instant runoff voting (IRV). Early analysis to date has identified, among other discrepancies, the following:

• The City Council, and not the voters, determined the vote counting method and interpretation rules — a method to which all seeking reelection would be subject. • Exacerbating this glaring conflict of interest, two Council members, both May election candidates, appointed themselves voting members of the IRV Task Force.
• On Election Day, TrueBallot used a different tabulation program than the one they tested. As a result, the vote tally in the mayor’s race was incorrectly counted. This fact was discovered by TrueBallot two weeks later.
• TrueBallot informed the city of this error on May 19. The city then withheld this information from the community, the Election Commission and the candidates until May 28 after the period for challenging the election had expired on May 22, stating that the error had no impact on election results.
• A mathematical anomaly inherent in IRV referred to cryptically as “non-monotonicity” created an illogical result. It appears that council candidate Michael Behrendt would have won a council seat if 75 of his supporters had ranked him second behind Jack Johnson instead of first. Council was warned of such unfair and arguably illegal IRV effects prior to the election but chose to ignore them.
• There never was a true audit of the election results, as claimed incessantly by the city. The 10 percent post-election review of ballots simply tested the ballot scanner, matching up ballot images to their comparative data strings. It did not test the accuracy of the TrueBallot vote tabulation program. Contrary to its claim, the city has to date produced no evidence of a “manual verification” of every ranking made on the ballots.

It’s not surprising that the City Council loathes release of additional information. It is, however, disappointing that the elected leaders of this self-actualized community reject the assistance of noted bipartisan election integrity experts Harvie Branscomb and Al Kolwicz, who could assist in improving the city’s election process for the future, whether the city continues to use IRV or not. The harsh political light on their flawed process would be uncomfortable, but the improvements would benefit Aspen, and possibly many other communities seeking to change voting methods, for generations to come.

Why the City Council’s unwillingness to accept an independent election process review at this juncture? Could it be the now notorious “secret” ballot images?

Logic requires one consider that, if the ballot images and their data strings contain identical information and if the ballot images must be protected from public scrutiny, shouldn’t the data strings be so protected? Since the data strings, reported in the likely order of votes cast are already public, has the City Council already violated its Constitutional duty? Is the argument over ballot images a mere side show designed to deflect scrutiny? Might this be the reason that instead of seeking the higher ground, they choose the path of confrontation, an example of which was the city’s Aug. 27 letter to The Aspen Times naming and criticizing me personally for exercising my free speech rights on this issue?

Left with no other defense, their credibility waning, is the city now using the thinly veiled threat of force as an instrument of their political will against those who seek to inform the community of Aspen’s election system flaws?

To me the implied message of the city’s personalized letter to the Times was crystal clear. Dare dissent and risk punishment. This is Aspen’s elected leadership: compromised by the flaws in the election system they created, unwilling to admit error, and therefore unable to find the higher ground that benefits the citizens they serve. Paul W. Menter is a Basalt resident and former finance director for the city of Aspen.

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