-Aspen's historic May 5, 2009 IRV election audited as single ballots- 5/5/09 Aspen CO held an instant runoff election (IRV) for mayor and 2 council members. Interpreted contents of each ballot, scanned by True Ballot, were publicly released. Open records requests for a CD of image scans were denied. Aspen has been sued to protect records from destruction and to allow inspection of the scanned ballot files. A Court of Appeals ruling holds that unidentifiable ballots are public records.

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Friday, April 2, 2010

Letter by Millard Zimet to Aspen Election Commissioners -

1315 Mountain View Drive
Aspen, CO 81611
millard [at] sopris [dot] net

Via Email:
Kathryn Koch
Ward Hauenstein
Robert Leatherman

April 2, 2010

Dear Aspen Election Commissioners:

I’m sorry I was out of town for your meeting held earlier this week.  I’m writing to introduce myself to the new Election Commission members, and to briefly explain the issues that have concerned me arising from the May 2009 election.

My initial concern was whether other people could tell how I voted. The Colorado Constitution requires secret ballot elections, and living in a small town I want to make sure my voting choices remain anonymous. My concern was heightened when I learned that the City of Aspen had not shuffled the ballots and had publicly released both the precinct logs (showing the names and order of the voters as they signed in at each precinct) and the strings generated from the ballot scans (showing how each ballot was voted). I investigated and determined that, because the ballots and strings hadn’t been shuffled, if I could find my string then I could see how the voters listed near me on my precinct log voted, and vice versa.  So I concluded that my ballot was not secure.  That led me to file my complaint dated August 30, 2009, because I felt (and still do feel) that the City of Aspen violated my constitutional right (as well as the constitutional rights of all Aspen voters) to a secret ballot election.  The City of Aspen has never responded in writing to my complaint, and has never denied the facts alleged in my complaint.

I then started studying the strings and the precinct logs, to see whether I could determine how people who hadn’t voted near me at my precinct voted.  I investigated and determined that there were four different ways one could tell how other voters voted, and those four ways are described in my email to the Aspen Election Commission, dated October 13, 2009.  To prove the point, in that email I showed how some voters voted (including Mayor Ireland, Councilman Romero, and Judge Nichols). 

In that email I also mentioned that I was concerned that the City had released in October 2009 TrueBallot’s batch data cover sheet (an attachment to that October 13 email), as that document provides information that could be used to recreate the order of the unshuffled ballot deck (or at least significant portions of it), which in turn could lead to wholesale disclosure of how a great many voters voted.  Since that time I have investigated this matter further, and I have concluded that that is the case.

During that investigation I also noticed that a certain voting pattern had been used very frequently.  Many voters chose to only vote for one or two candidates, and left all the other choices blank; this is known as “bullet voting” or “strategic voting”.  I investigated and learned that FairVote had warned the City in writing prior to the election that some voters would try to game the IRV system by bullet voting[1], and that the City was aware of the warning and discussed it prior to the election. I sent a memo to the Aspen City Council (dated March 15, 2010) showing that about 21% of the voters in the Mayoral and City Council races bullet voted; the City was expecting bullet voting would be less than 5%[2].  That memo also showed the distribution of the bullet votes, and that distribution made it evident that bullet voting helped some candidates win their seats (particularly the second seat of the City Council race, which was decided by about 40 votes).  The three winning candidates were also the three candidates with the most bullet votes.

During that investigation I also noticed that many voters were disenfranchised and denied the right to vote in the runoff elections that decided every contest.  Only ballots that contained votes for the runoff round candidates were counted in the runoff rounds.  Typically one is denied the right to vote if one has done something like renounced one’s citizenship, failed to register to vote, or committed a felony; but in Aspen one is denied the right to vote (even if you are registered to vote and show up on election day to vote) if you don’t vote for the right candidates.

And during that investigation I also noticed that there were several places (at least a dozen) in the strings where there appear to be duplicate scans, such as:

A0010072       4231                297584163
A0010073       4231                297584163


E0030079        1324                531489672
E0030080        1324                531489672


E0010025        1300                580000000
E0010026        1300                580000000
E0010027        1230                300000000
E0010028        1230                300000000

So it does appear that some ballots were counted twice, suggesting that there may have been ballots that were not counted at all.  I strongly doubt that the scanning process was 100% accurate, and I am concerned that some voters may have voted twice and some voters may have been disenfranchised due to scanning errors.

I would like the Aspen Election Commission to investigate these issues, as well as the various issues raised by other citizens regarding the May 2009 election, and to hold real public hearings that are not dominated by the City.  Please understand that in many cases the people who have the most knowledge about these issues will be sitting in the audience, not working for the City. 

Unfortunately, the pattern to date has been to have very limited public comment at Election Commission meetings, and for the City to hog the speaking time and treat this entire matter as an unwanted public relations damage control exercise.  It must be noted that the City has every incentive to sweep under the rug all issues from the May 2009 election, and to date the City has acted in a manner entirely consistent with that incentive. 

It also appears that, unless voters approve a City Charter amendment, the City intends to use the same flawed voting system for the May 2011 election, even though the City now knows (or should know) of the serious problems inherent in its IRV systems.  So I would also like the Election Commission to recommend to the Aspen City Council that voters be provided an opportunity this November to amend the Charter and replace IRV with the traditional runoff system that had served our community well for many years; voters in Burlington, Vermont recently made that exact choice.

Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I am prepared to address the Election Commission at greater length and detail on all of the topics discussed in this letter.  You may obtain copies of all the documents that I have previously submitted to the Election Commission (including those referenced in this letter) from Ms. Koch.

Very truly yours,
Millard J. Zimet

Cc:       Aspen City Council
James True, Esq.

[1] In their report to the City of Aspen, dated January 20, 2009, FairVote wrote: “But in this proposed system, it is transparent about how to game the system if you understand it.  Some voters will choose to “bullet vote” for one or two candidates and will help those candidates defeat opponents whose backers are less informed about the system.
[2] Source:  Transcript of Aspen City Council Meeting dated February 9, 2009, in which Kathryn Koch told the Aspen City Council, in response to a query regarding how many voters would bullet vote: “I would say less than 5% would do that.”

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