Denver’s crowded mayoral election earlier this month and the pre-planned runoff in June have prompted a new push to implement ranked-choice voting in future city elections.
Just one day after the April 4 election, a nonpartisan group called Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado announced the formation of the Denver Deserves Democracy Committee, which will advocate for the city to make the switch to what’s also called instant-runoff voting.
This method lets voters rank candidates on their ballots by order of preference, first, second and third, up to the number of allowable options. If one candidate gets the majority of voters’ first-choice rankings, that person wins the election. But if no candidate secures an outright majority, candidates are then eliminated through subsequent rounds of counting. Votes go to the candidate that voters ranked as their next choice on a ballot until a majority-vote winner succeeds.
The committee will need to get the City Council’s approval to refer a measure to the ballot asking Denverites whether they want to adopt ranked-choice voting. Organizers of the effort say they already have some current and newly-elected council members on board. But if the City Council doesn’t agree to refer the measure, advocates plan to pursue it through a citizen initiative.
Linda Templin, executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, called Denver’s current election process haphazard, noting that fewer than half of voters chose the two mayoral candidates now headed toward a runoff.
Because none of the 17 candidates on the ballot received more than 50% of the vote, Denver residents will have the opportunity to vote between top two vote-getters Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston in a runoff election June 6. This scenario is not unique: In 2019, five candidates ran against incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock, but no candidate reached the threshold for an immediate win, so Hancock faced off against Jamie Giellis before winning his third term in office.
Ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for a runoff, and Templin noted that while overall voter dissatisfaction is high, the Pew Research Center found ranked-choice voters are more satisfied, as seen in Basalt and Santa Fe, New Mexico, elections.
“Reasons can include that they can more fully express their preferences instead of limiting their choices to those who have a chance of winning a plurality race,” she said. “Voters also like that the campaigns have become more issue-focused, because they have a better understanding of what the candidates plan to do.”
In 2021, the Denver City Council considered two recommendations from the clerk and recorder’s office to fix a timing conflict between state and municipal election laws: move the election from the first week of May to the first week of April, or transition to a ranked-choice voting model. The council opted to move the date of the election.
Denver County Clerk and Recorder Paul López has said that although the City Council decided against implementing ranked-choice voting, should a new council or citizen initiative lead Denver to go that route, “I remain confident that we can run a ranked-choice election model with excellence.” But, he added, it has to be paired with public engagement, especially in areas that historically have had low voter turnout.
Also in 2021, the Colorado legislature passed a law that would allow ranked-choice voting through county clerks’ offices with support from the secretary of state’s office for towns, cities or counties that opt to use the method for nonpartisan municipal elections. Prior to this legislation, cities and towns were on their own if they chose to implement ranked-choice voting.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold remains neutral about counties or cities that decide to use the method, but her office said it would provide technical support as required under the law.
“The ranked-choice voting model may provide certain benefits to both voters and election administrators,” spokeswoman Annie Orloff said in a written statement. “To date, Colorado has a handful of cities and counties that have adopted this law and this fall’s elections are the first opportunity for communities to utilize RCV on the ballot.”
Home-rule cities like Fort Collins have passed ranked-choice voting, and the towns of Basalt and Carbondale use instant-runoff voting in their municipal elections if they have enough candidates running. The city of Boulder and the city and county of Broomfield also have announced that they plan to use ranked-choice voting in November.
Despite the method’s rising popularity, some say it could be confusing to voters and cause disenfranchisement — something advocates strongly dispute.
What do ranked-choice opponents say?
Denver City Council member Kevin Flynn has been a vocal opponent of such a move, calling it “a great leap backward.”
Flynn provided a spreadsheet of 46 municipal elections using ranked-choice voting across the country that he analyzed, saying that only five resulted in a majority winner right away. In at least one election he reviewed, 22 rounds of counting resulted in three out of every five ballots being discounted because voters, who only had three allowable choices, did not include the ultimate election winner in their rankings.
With runoffs, Flynn said, everyone gets a second chance to vote.
While ranked-choice proponents point to Denver’s April 4 election as a solid reason to pursue instant-runoff voting, Flynn views it as a strong case against it.
He said he heard from people who couldn’t decide who to vote for out of the 17 mayoral candidates — many didn’t even know that one person had dropped out prior to the election — and they surely wouldn’t be able to easily rank them. Plus, if voters only rank three or four candidates, but those candidates end up getting eliminated during the counting rounds, then their votes ultimately don’t count toward the final result, he argued.
“The system we use right now, every vote counts,” Flynn said. “Even the people who did not vote for Johnston or Brough. They get a second chance now to vote between the two.”
Proponents of the system, however, argue that turnout for races in ranked-choice elections tends to be higher than in plurality or top-two runoff elections, and that only a small number of ballots become “inactive” when voters don’t have an active choice remaining. Although current guidelines recommend six rankings, clerks will have discretion as to how many choices voters will get, Templin said.
“Regardless of the number of candidates, RCV finds the consensus of a majority,” Templin said. “City charter does not require that the hard number of votes for a majority be the same in the runoff. The majority percentage yields a different hard number in each round whether the system is top-two or RCV.”
Another concern of Flynn’s is the cost to transition to ranked-choice voting, while Templin argues that ranked-choice voting will actually save the city money by getting rid of the second runoff election.
City costs to run an election fluctuate, depending on various factors, including the number of voters, length of a ballot and personnel needed. Although exact costs are still being calculated, the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office estimates that the April and June municipal elections will cost about $2 million each, according to spokesperson Lucille Wenegieme. In comparison, the cost of the November 2022 election was just under $4 million, and the 2024 general election is expected to be around $5 million.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office said that any cities or counties that use Dominion Voting Systems software licensed through the Secretary of State’s Office, as Denver does, should already be set up to use ranked-choice voting and therefore will not have to change their equipment.
There’s still an additional cost for the license to use the ranked-choice module and a recurring yearly support fee to the election management system — estimated at about $80,000, though that could decrease if other counties also license the software at the same time, or increase as Denver’s population goes up, according to Lucille Wenegieme, a spokesperson for the clerk’s office.
Wenegieme said the clerk’s office doesn’t yet have a cost estimate for the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which would include increased paper use, because ranked-choice voting ballots tend to be longer due to their layout; extensive voter education and engagement; and the reissuing of all voter instructions and translations.
Two forms for ranked-choice voting
While ranked-choice voting is used primarily in municipal elections, Alaska and Maine use it for state primary, congressional and presidential elections.
Lee Durtman, a senior fellow at New America, a civic organization based in Washington, D.C., was among the authors of a report published in November 2021 analyzing ranked-choice voting use across the nation.
“Broadly, the research shows that RCV is an improvement over the more traditional single-vote plurality voting system, with clear benefits in some areas — especially campaign quality and descriptive representation — and more marginal or no apparent benefits in other areas,” the report stated. “The research should also allay fears that RCV is too confusing or discriminatory: voters understand RCV, and learn to like it, too, particularly with experience.”
Durtman told The Denver Post that ranked-choice voting works best for crowded local nonpartisan elections, and that voters understanding the process is less of an issue than voters fully utilizing their rankings. Still, he said, in the majority of cases, ranked-choice voting often just reinforces the plurality winner.
Although proponents say ranked-choice voting will increase turnout and detractors say it will decrease it, the research shows that the method doesn’t affect turnout much — what does is the competitiveness of an election, according to Durtman.
“The effects of ranked-choice voting are much more minor than either its critics or its boosters make it out to be,” he said.
Ranked-choice voting tends to increase the number of candidates running in the first election after it’s implemented, Durtman said, but that levels off.
And while evidence is limited, ranked-choice voting seems promising for more people of color and women running for office, according to the report.
There are two forms of ranked-choice voting: single-winner (such as for mayor) and multi-winner (such as for City Council).
The city of Portland, Oregon, just approved multi-winner ranked-choice voting, which Durtman said is superior to single-winner voting in terms of representation.
In Denver, the proposal is for at-large seats, which are dual-winner seats, to be elected proportionally, so that means someone has to get one vote over the 33% threshold to win (the threshold is calculated by one over the number of seats to be elected, plus one).
“That gives everyone a fair share of the say,” Templin said. “Instead of a simple majority being represented, a broader array of viewpoints get representation. Proportional representation has also been used to settle civil rights complaints in other cities.”
State and local policy teams are beginning discussions about expanding proportional representation “because it eliminates the power of gerrymandering. Single-winner RCV is the best method of finding an executive that people agree upon. RCV for proportional representation is ideal for deliberative bodies because it includes more viewpoints,” she added.
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