Ranked-choice voting already happens in two Colorado towns, and it’s catching on in places like New York City, Maine and Alaska.
This year, Colorado lawmakers are likely to pass a bill designed to make it easier for more local governments to join in.
Advocates say the alternative method of voting limits polarization, thwarts “spoiler” candidates and eliminates the need for costly and time-consuming runoff elections. It can also be quite confusing, and backers and opponents of the upcoming bill alike are nervous about the challenge of educating voters and getting their buy-in.
State Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, will introduce the bill when the legislature reconvenes next month. It would allow towns and cities to run ranked-choice elections — also known as instant runoff — through county clerk’s offices.
Though ranked-choice voting is already allowed at the local level in Colorado, the proposed guidelines for county involvement would be new. The bill would also require the secretary of state’s office to develop rules establishing consistent voting systems and auditing practices that would apply statewide for any town or city that opts in.
It’s not clear that this will have any bipartisan support — Senate GOP leadership declined comment, and House GOP Leader Hugh McKean is opposed — but interviews with lawmakers in the Democrat-led statehouse indicate the bill should pass.
How it works
Ranked-choice voting systems differ slightly among the nearly 20 U.S. cities currently using them, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and San Francisco. Boulder is among a batch of other states and cities, like Alaska and New York City, set to adopt the method soon.
It works like this: Voters in contests with three or more candidates — usually city council and mayoral races, plus some statewide primaries — rank candidates by preference. If no candidate secures at least 50% of the vote, “instant runoff” rounds follow, with last-place candidates lopped off until someone secures a majority.
Whereas Basalt and Telluride, both with populations under 4,000, can fairly easily conduct elections this way, a city like Boulder, where ranked-choice voting for mayors will start in 2023, must coordinate closely with the county.
Molly Fitzpatrick, the clerk and recorder in Boulder County, said her office doesn’t have the bandwidth to run a ranked-choice election without state guidance and resources for both voting software and auditing processes.
“It really is beyond the scope of what a single county can do, given that we’re talking about touching the voting system,” she said.
A city charter committee in Denver is also exploring multiple election reforms for the city, including ranked-choice voting, which could end up in front of voters in November.
Lawmakers thus believe there is some urgency to set rules in place, and they expect other towns and cities will want to explore this if and when the bill passes.
“I feel like as soon as we are educated as a council and as a city, I think people would” be interested, Brighton Mayor Pro Tempore Matt Johnston said. “I’d definitely advocate for it. I think there would be an appetite.”
Kennedy said Secretary of State Jena Griswold is “on board” with the idea, though her office told The Denver Post it needs “details and cost before supporting any specific method or change.”
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The bill is also being looked at as a sort of pilot program to see whether Colorado could take it statewide, according to Kennedy and others interviewed.
“Let’s solve the city problem first,” Kennedy said. “What comes next, we’ll see how it goes. If we find that voters are not confused by this, that they think this works, we’ll talk about it.”
That’s a big “if,” he acknowledged. There’s fear among elected officials about replacing a traditional, straightforward voting method.
“The biggest issue is not a partisan issue. It’s a knowledge-gap issue,” said Terrance Carroll, the former Colorado House speaker who now advocates for ranked-choice voting.
“Nobody understands it”
Aspen used to vote by ranked-choice, but voters repealed that a decade ago, partly out of frustration with its complexity, former mayor and current Councilwoman Rachael Richards said.
“There was concern about whether people would game the system in some way, or fear that maybe your second choice would end up wiping out your first choice,” she said.
Fort Collins voters in 2011 turned down ranked-choice voting. State Rep. Jeni Arndt — a Fort Collins Democrat, current mayoral candidate and Kennedy’s co-lead sponsor on the bill — said, “I hate to say this about the voters, because it’s kind of rude, but maybe they didn’t really understand it?”
“Nobody understands it,” Aspen citizen Maurice Emmer said. “Just use the system everyone understands. Have a runoff, get on with life.”
The benefit of runoffs, he and others argued, is voters get more time to learn about and dissect the candidates, especially in general elections, when candidates in crowded fields might struggle to get their messages heard. Ranked-choice voting advocates counter that runoffs are expensive and usually inspire lower voter turnout.
Advocates also argue that ranked-choice elections can prevent polarization by forcing candidates and voters who might otherwise be resolutely opposed to listen to one another.
“It adds more civility to elections. You never discount a vote,” Arndt said. “If a voter says, ‘I really like Candidate X,’ you don’t say, ‘Well, screw you,’ and walk away. You ask why, because you want to be their second choice, right?”
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