Newsletter 6 (June 26, 2013)

Friends and Advocates of Approval Voting,

Our attempt to institute Approval Voting in Colorado's home rule City of Littleton, to be first in the nation, was defeated.

The bad news is we lost 1-2. The good news is we lost 1-2.

First, we'd like to acknowledge the larger and smaller pictures that too often get lost and inadvertently forgotten when pursuing such a large goal.

A very personal poignant aspect that may have got lost in the hearing was Jerry Hill's written statement recounting how his high school Prom King and Queen elections where racially distorted by the plurality election method. Spoiler candidates were recruited to split the minorities' vote in order to elect a white. Sabotage like this is unhealthy for any democracy. Approval Voting is our attempt to resolve this dilemma.

Jerry first related this history to me election evening 2002 when we were discussing why in the world anyone would waste their vote on a third faction, rather than consolidate with a more electable faction, his concern being that I was naive and letting myself be manipulated by others. We believe Approval Voting will empower voters with more choices and minimize factions splitting their votes.

A very broad aspect is voting systems matter in a BIG way! Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University, explains: “Voting is not like physics or engineering where we have to do what the math tells us. Rather it is one of those cases where we can make the math work for us – to use it to achieve our own ends as a society. The voters will make the selection, but the math we choose can shape the kind of government we get.”

Resuming the story, the Littleton Charter empowers the Election Commission, City Clerk (Wendy Heffner) and two citizens (Mark Crowley and John Hershey, appointed by the City Council) to determine the city's voting method. The Commission met June 5 and 26 to discuss Approval Voting and hear from the public.

Significant items raised were that with Approval Voting 1) fear of antagonizing crossover voters would motivate candidates to be more civil, 2) in Littleton there are not formal factions as in partisan elections and this might not change election results, 3) instituting Approval Voting has to begin somewhere, seeing as 4) it is not currently being used in US government elections. (The analogous “Nothing is broken” argument, was applicable to the the transition from Roman Numerals (which also, weren't broken) to Arabic, is equally challenging.)

It was acknowledged that in recent Littleton elections voters could vote for two of three candidates – effectively, but not truly, Approval Voting. Also, Littleton's adjacent city of Centennial in 2007 held a Charter election where the voter could vote for 21 of 35 candidates, perhaps demonstrating Arapahoe County's ability to be able to handle voters voting for more than just a few candidates. Also, the Electology web site addresses large engineering and science organizations using Approval Voting.

Generic issues continue to be that for major factions there will be fewer spoilers and less sabotage and for minor factions more visibility and viability.

Another attribute of Approval Voting introduced by State Representative Conti, who endorsed Approval Voting at the second meeting, is the candidates after the election have a truer insight into voter sentiment. The wasted vote argument won't be masking voter discontent. Because the ballots are secret, it might take expensive polling to identify details of crossover voting patterns, but at least the voter has those options and candidates would be wise not to antagonize crossover voters.

We were caught in a chicken and egg conundrum. During the hearing for State Senator David Balmer's Approval Voting bill at the Capitol in February 2013, one of the questions was, where is the demand for state guidance? Now that we've met with a city's clerk, we have that demand.

During public discussion Commission member Mark Crowley appeared to speak most favorably for Approval Voting; but, when it came to voting, he and the City Clerk cast their votes against Approval Voting, and John Hershey voted for Approval Voting. Thanks to commissioners being able to research Approval Voting on the internet, such as the Electology web site, all three were able to easily come up to speed and appreciate the merits of Approval Voting.

At the conclusion of the second meeting, it became very clear that the concerns of the Littleton City Clerk, Wendy Heffner, would dominate the decision. Her concerns are even though Littleton is a home rule city and the Election Commission has the prerogative to select the city's voting method, there currently is no guidance from the Secretary of State's office as to how to conduct Approval Voting elections nor a plan as to how to educate Littleton citizens, which she feels is necessary, and the burden of conducting the election would fall on her. After the vote, the meeting concluded with an understanding that the Approval Voting topic would be back and guidance and education issues would be resolved.

Aspen, Colorado's experiment with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) was both good news and bad news – IRV was not a distraction to our discussion. The good news is Aspen's episode with IRV was disastrous, which has minimized discussion of IRV as a viable voting alternative without having to get into discussion of IRV's additional complexities, greater costs and anomalous math. The bad news is because of that episode, Littleton's City Clerk is gun shy and cautious. The Aspen Times Weekly, October 1, 2010, article, “Unlocking IRV, How instant runoff voting turned the May 2009 election into a 17 month fight.” introduces the initial history (first 17 months) of that disastrous IRV election and why Aspen has repealed IRV.

I'm calling this Littleton Election Commission decision a draw; yes, we lost 1-2, but there were lots of kind words and we're in agreement that we'll be back. I feel we're hunkering down. Next steps are: 1) talk with Secretary of State's office and Arapahoe County Clerk about obtaining guidance and education plans, 2) edit a bill for Representative Singer, lobby state legislators, get the bill passed in 2014, 3) come back to Littleton Election Commission, 4) review Boulder League of Women Voters' Election Unit results beyond their provisional assessment results,. 5) continue to attend political events at which alternative voting methods will be discussed, 6) place a fresh order of Approval Voting polo shirts and baseball caps for more visibility. Call us for details.

We are very grateful for Littleton's State Representative Kathleen Conti's attendance and very kind words and endorsement of the Approval Voting concept. Representative Jonathan Singer from Longmont, who will be carrying an Approval Voting bill this January, was unable to attend because of unexpected health problems. Like this year's State Senate bill, Rep Singer's House bill will be enabling legislation for statutory municipalities and special districts to use Approval Voting if they so choose in accordance with Secretary of State guidance. I extended invitations to both Arapahoe Clerk Election deputy, Wayne Munster, who was on travel, and also to the Secretary of State's office; no one from either office attended.

We are very grateful for the favorable press coverage from all three local newspapers: The Littleton Independent's reporter Jennifer Smith's article, “City election panel considers changes” dated June 10, 2013. The Columbine Courier reporter, Ramsey Scott's article “Littleton's Election Commission eyes 'approval voting' plan” dated June 12, 2013 and “Activist pushes 'Approval Voting' in Littleton' Voters could select as many candidates as they wanted” and “Littleton Election Commission rejects 'approval voting'” July 2, 2013, and The Villager “Activists pushes 'approval voting' in Littleton by Peter Jones dated June 27, 2013.

If a voter is only familiar and understands conventional “bullet” voting, and then finds himself in an Approval Voting election without having been “educated” and chooses to continue to “bullet” vote, no harm has been done. He may have missed an opportunity to be more expressive with his vote, but no harm of invalidating that portion of the ballot has been done.

Educating voters adequately could be very challenging. It could be argued that our current existing system with over-vote percentages in Littleton of approximately 0.07% in at-large and 0.12% in district elections, already illustrates our failure to fully educate all the voters. How do we evaluate the educational process? Some might argue that no alternative method would ever be acceptable, seeing as some voters already fail to understand the current system.

The current voter education method is ”Read the instructions.” When I moved into Littleton, no one to my memory tried to explain the concept of casting as many votes as there were open seats; nor that in the at-large election where I could cast two votes, that the candidate with the most votes would get a 4-year seat and runner up gets a 2 year seat.

I had thought a reasonable education device would be for the Littleton City Council to authorize a non-binding concurrence referendum, sometimes put on the ballot as an advisory question. Now, my understanding of the city's position is that “non-binding” is not something to put on the ballot. It was viewed as a straw poll with muscle with a tentative language of “Shall a majority of Littleton citizens concur with the Election Commission’s decision to implement Approval Voting in candidate elections starting in 2015? The voting instructions would change from 'Vote for one' to 'Vote for one or more.'” Alternative instructions might be: “Vote for any number of candidates, one winner.” or “Vote for as many as you want.” Or, “Vote for all of the candidates you approve of.”

We'd like to express much appreciation to many individuals who have been supportive of this effort, especially state legislators: Senator David Balmer, Representatives Kathleen Conti and Jonathan Singer, Secretary of State Scott Gessler. On the internet, the support staff of Electolgy and Warren Smith. In attendance of Election Commission meetings: Littleton staff Clerk Wendy Heffner, Colleen Norton, and City Attorney, Kristin Schledom, citizen Election Commission members: Mark Crowley and John Hershey, City Council member Peggy Cole, Ron Williamson, Hugh Hillary, Norm Brown, Dave Mitchell, Pam Chadborn, Paul Bingham, Jerry Hill, Mike Spalding, Caroline Peale and Alan Hayman. Both Alan and Maureen Supple have tried to edit this report. Reporters Jennifer Smith, Ramsey Scott and Peter Jones; friends who have been very supportive after being introduced to the concept: especially Ken Hollister, Bill Baer, Blake Huber, Jim Frye and Steve Cobb, Elena Nunez of Common Cause and Richard Winger of Ballot Access News which has reported our progress.

Side Bar #1

Voting Quiz:

The purpose of these questions is to illustrate the nuances of counting votes, and remind us all that sometimes the correct answers are not always obvious. The first two questions are technicalities and the last four are style / strategy of voting.
  1. If the instructions are “Vote for two,” and you as a voter vote for only one does that invalidate this race on your ballot? Consensus is this does not invalidate that race.
  2. If the instructions are “Vote for one” and your preferred candidate is both on the ballot and a certified write-in candidate, and, as a voter, you choose to both vote for him and also write him in on the ballot, does that invalidate this race on your ballot, because you voted for more than one, or is your vote still valid because there is clear intent, seeing as you voted for the same person? My understanding is clear intent takes priority and the candidate would receive one vote from you.
  3. Typically, the voter may vote for as many candidates as there are open seats. When given the opportunity to “Vote for two”, what percentage of the the time do you vote for only one candidate? In the 2009 Littleton City Council At-Large election (Bruc Stahlman, Peggy Cole & Yoon Joo Mager) about 44.7% of the voters cast only a single (bullet) vote for only one of the three candidates, rather than also casting a second vote as allowed.
  4. As a voter, how do you find out if a race has multiple open seats?
  5. If there were only two candidates in an at-large election, and the instructions were: “Vote for two” would you vote for only one, and why?
  6. In some “Vote for two” elections the top vote-getting candidate gets the 4-year seat and second vote-getting candidate gets a 2-year seat. Are you aware of this?
An illustration of nuances of election guidance is “How many write-in opportunities in Approval Voting elections?” My thoughts would be no change, which I assume means only as many write-in opportunities as there are the fewer of open seats or of certified write-in candidates. Likewise, Approval Voting would make no changes to ballot access regulations.


Frank Atwood