05 May 2011

Denver's Election Results

In Tuesday's non-partisan election, Denver voters re-elected their incumbent auditor, chose two city council members for "at large" seats, and elected eight of eleven city council people from single member districts (five in uncontested elections). Turnout was 38% of the ballots distributed, with ballots going out to all active registered voters in the City, slightly below the norm in the last couple of municipal elections, but not horrible either.

There will be runoffs between the top two finishers in the first round in City Council Districts 1, 5 and 8, and in the races for Mayor and Clerk and Recorder. All of the races with runoffs happen, not coincidentally, to be open seats. As my own city council district race was uncontested, the ballot that I will receive and return by June 7 will have only four names for two offices on it, and I've given those names at least some consideratioon already in the first round.

The Case For Non-Instant Runoffs

Proponents of a system once called the "single transferable vote" and now called "instant runoff voting" would favor a system where you get to vote a first and second and perhaps higher order choice, allowing the election to be decided all in one go, even when no candidate receives a majority.

The case for considering the preferences of voters who didn't vote for the plurality candidate when no candidate receives a majority is a good one. Denver voters, for example, have not infrequently backed a runner up in a runoff election, suggesting that a combination of more information and the preferences of candidates who supported someone who was not one of the two finalists don't, as a reliable general rule, strongly favor the plurality winnner in this kind of non-partisan race.

I prefer the system used by Denver, Louisiana and France, where there is a runoff election, because it allows me as a voter to have more time to research viable candidates and consider my options before making a decision in the second round, even when the candidate that I favored in the first round is not eliminated. Any decision that causes decisions upon which there is not a clear popular preference to be made based on more information and deliberation than would otherwise be devoted to the decision is probably a good thing.

I also have little confidence that my fellow citizens would make second choice decisions that are as good if they didn't have this extra time. I've written wills and trusts for people for a decade and a half, and most of my clients, even when they are well educated, find it a strain to think about "what if" hypotheticals beyond the situation that would exist if they died today. Most people are better at making decisions in a "what now" context than in a "what if" context. Frequently, I have to spend a long time talking people through the ideas by telling little stories at length "what if you and your partner and your children all died in a car crash today, the people you've mentioned who are still alive are . . . . who would you want to inherit from you now?"

There is also more of an incentive to do good media coverage of a runoff election between two candidates proven to be viable and reasonably close in electoral strength which may reveal new critical data than there is in the waning days of a nine or more way race.

In an election with many candidates there is a tendency to engage in satisficing decision making, i.e. researching until you find an acceptable choice rather than trying to research carefully enough to find the best choice. If most people make their decisions that way, and no one candidate receives a majority of the vote, the likelihood that the first round winner was not the optimal choice is pretty good. So, the chances that additional information before the runoff election is held will improve the quality of the decision making process is pretty good.

This is particularly true in a case like City Council District 8, which was entirely a write in election due to the death of incumbent Carla Madison shoertly before the election. The very short schedule for that race meant that there was very little time for the thirty-nine candidates in the race to run full fledged campaigns that could have afforded the general public the information they needed to make an optimizing decision. About 28% of voters in that district didn't cast a vote for the office at all, and each of the candidates that made the runoff from the 5,361 write in votes cast captured only about 1/7th of the votes cast. Eleven candidates received at least one hundred votes (including the two candidates making it to the runoff), and five candidates received more than three hundred votes (the number of signatures needed to petition onto the ballot in ordinary circumstances).

The Benefits Of Ballot Access

It is also a good moment to observe the benefits that accrue to being on the ballot, even in an election like this one, where voters could complete their ballot at their leisure "open book" at their kitchen table, rather than without access to pertinent information in a voting booth under time pressures, a relatively ideal environment for write in candidates.

The practical ability of voters to cast a write in vote if they are determiend to do so is illustrated by the fact that in City Council District 8 almost four-fifths of voters managed to cast a valid write in ballot. Also, no city council race in the city, with or without names on the ballot had an undervote of less than 5% and the average undervote was considerably higher. Thus, no more than 18% of voters were discouraged by the all write in character of the race from casting a vote, and the average undervote percentage in contested city council races was closer to 10%, suggesting that perhaps only one in seven voters was discouraged by the write in character of the District 8 vote from casting a vote.

In the Mayoral race, every candidate who appeared on the ballot received at least 0.46% of the vote (519 votes). Marcus Giavanni, the most successful of the three write in candidates for Mayor, who mounted an active campaign with at least as many signs up around town as some of the other candidates whose names appeared on the ballot, nonetheless garnered just 21 votes. The cutoff to make the second round in the Mayoral race based on the unofficial results was 30,314 votes (27% of the total). The third place candidate in the Mayoral race, after conferring with campaign legal counsel, has announced that he will not challenge the unofficial vote count. None of the races in the first round were close enough to trigger an automatic recount.

In the Council Member At Large race, in which the one of the five candidates appearing on the ballot with the least votes received 8,437 votes (6% of the total cast in a race where each voter could vote for up to two candidates), none of the three write in candidates received more than 121 votes. The cutoff to win a seat, according to the unofficial results, was 31,603 votes (22% of the total number of votes cast in a race where each voter may vote up to two times).

Unless no one is who appears on the ballot is running for an office, it is almost impossible to win a write in campaign, in an ordinary electoral environment where the barriers to ballot access for credible candidates who have their acts together is not overwhelming. But, this isn't necessarily deeply troubling from a democratic perspective, because the practical reality is that the candidates who did not receive access to the ballot probably had a very dim chance of winning office even if they had been granted access to the ballot. No write in candidate outside Council District 8, which had no candidate on the ballot, received more than 121 write in votes in an election where three hundred signatures on a petition are required to gain access to the ballot - a requirement that is less than 1% of the votes that were actually required to win or advance to a second round in a citywide race this year.

No candidate outside Council District 8 in a city council race received more than 70 write in votes, less than 1% of the votes received by the winner in that city council district, an otherwise uncontested incumbent.

An Expensive Mayoral Race

Campaign spending in this election was considerable.

Romer, through last Thursday, spent about $1.4 million on his successful campaign, which turns out to be about $43 a vote. Hancock spent about $711,489, which equals about $23 per vote.

Theresa Spahn spent $108,288 but got only 3,332 votes, roughly $32.50 a vote. Councilman Doug Linkhart had spent $152,199 through last Thursday on his campaign that received a total of 10,557 votes, about $14.41 per vote. Viewed this way, the biggest winner was probably Thomas Wolf, who dubbed himself the "free candidate" because he accepted no money and spent only $250. He got 2,106 votes, about 12 cents a vote.

Running the election, of course, also wasn't free, although the city of Denver, as is typical in mail in elections in Colorado, didn't provide postage to voters, which cost voters who didn't hand deliver their ballots 61 cents each, a barrier that probably had a measurable effect on turnout.

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