Ranked-choice voting: Coming soon to more of Colorado’s towns and cities?

Ranked-choice voting: Coming soon to more of Colorado’s towns and cities?

By Alex Burness (January 30, 2021)

Telluride and Basalt do it. Boulder plans to, and Denver may follow. State lawmakers want to make it easier for even more to join in.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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?”

Read more at DenverPost.com

COVER STORY | Hot Topics in the 2021 session

By Marianne Goodland (February 21, 2021)

Ranked-choice voting

Expect lawmakers to take up technical tweaks, not total transformation, of Colorado’s election administration system.

Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, says he’s got two election-related bills in the works. The first is a measure that would seek to increase access to ranked-choice voting at the local level.

That system, also known as instant runoff, asks voters in elections with three or more candidates to rank their choices from most to least preferable. If a candidate fails to win at least 50% of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes reallocated to their voters’ second-choice candidate. 

“I just never felt that that was fair,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was a better system to give people a way of prioritizing, because it addresses the spoiler issues and some of the other concerns that come up in those races.”

While cities are already allowed to use ranked-choice voting, only three — Basalt, Carbondale and Telluride — actually do. Kennedy said that’s because locals often rely on their county clerks to administer elections, and county clerks are required under state law to administer standard first-past-the-post elections.

“I’m just trying to clear those roadblocks and make it so that [locals] can meaningfully use the authority that they already have,” Kennedy said.

County commissioner redistricting

Kennedy is also planning to introduce a bill that would largely copy the framework from amendments Y and Z in 2018, which sought to draw fair district maps at the congressional and state legislative levels. Kennedy’s bill would add county commissioner maps into the mix, where commissioners are allowed to draw their own districts.

This year’s bill rolls back the independent map-drawing commissions from a requirement to a recommendation, but otherwise keeps much of the same framework in place. Eric Bergman, the policy director for Colorado Counties Inc., told Colorado Politics dropping the mandate for the commission helps but the bill still feels onerous, because there aren’t widespread complaints about gerrymandering at the county level. Still, he said his organization would continue to work with Kennedy and provide feedback.

The bill as it currently stands would apply only to the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. An additional seven — those with populations that exceed 70,000 — could eventually be included, including Boulder, Jefferson and Mesa, if those counties choose to go to five commissioners. They all have three now, but some are considering going to five. The only large counties that would be exempt are Broomfield and Denver, which are city/county governments led by city councils, not county commissions.

Kennedy said he hadn’t started lobbying his colleagues on either of the bills yet but has drafts of both proposals ready to go. He was optimistic both could end up on the governor’s desk.

“I believe in myself, in my ability to do the work and persuade people that this is a good idea,” he said. 

Read more on ColoradoPolitics.com

Ranked-choice voting legislation clears committee on party-line vote

By Pat Poblete (February 22, 2021)

A host of advocates, organizations and elected officials past and present testified Monday in support of legislation seeking to increase access to ranked-choice voting at the local level as the bill cleared committee on a party lines.

But while the measure won support from the Colorado Municipal Clerks Association, the League of Women Voters and the Colorado Municipal League, among others, it received strong pushback from El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman.

“As a guide, voting should be easy, clear-cut and assessable as possible and allow the greatest swath of voter participation as possible,” Broerman said. “House Bill 1071 fails to meet that test.”

The ranked-choice voting system as a whole drew widespread support from the witnesses testifying before Kennedy’s panel. But several — including Matt Benjamin, who last year led a successful Boulder charter amendment to use ranked-choice voting in the city’s mayoral election starting in 2023 — said Kennedy’s bill was more broadly about local control.

“Instead of debating the merits of RCV, it should be whether or not we agree as a state, certainly as a committee and a House, whether we support local control and what that means for communities that want to choose their own fate and have the will of the voters decide the outcomes of their elections,” he said. 

Former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, reinforced that point while testifying in support.

“This is what local control is all about,” he said. “Many people like to say that states are the laboratories of democracy — I would say that in Colorado, our municipal governments are laboratories of democracy and they allow us to look at evolving democratic norms to ensure that our democracy is truly representing the will of the people.”

But Broerman highlighted a host of issues, including concerns the system would “increase the prevalence of spoiled or exhausted votes.”

“Understanding the differences in policy between candidates to the point where a voter can meaningfully rank all candidates in order of preference requires a great deal of political savvy and engagement,” he said.

The panel’s Republicans also opposed the bill. Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, slammed it as an attempt to hand off the expenses of Boulder’s move to ranked-choice voting to taxpayers and businesses.

“For years towns like Telluride have been running their elections this way with no help from the state,” he said in a statement. “Boulder should make sure their fiscal house is in order before passing measures instead of coming to businesses across the state to fund their pet projects, especially during a time when many are already struggling with keeping their doors open during the pandemic.”

That’s a reference to testimony from state Election Director Judd Choate, who said the price tag of roughly $1 million for the Secretary of State’s office to implement the necessary changes would largely be covered by raising fees.

Choate said Secretary of State Jena Griswold largely supports the idea of alternative voting methods. But he raised concerns about both the prospect of raising fees on businesses in the middle of a pandemic and the “tight” timeline the original draft of the bill presented.

“If this bill were advanced without amendment to extend the implementation timeline, our office would have roughly 18 months to deliver a substantial multi-component overhaul of our election system,” he said.  “The timeline to do this significant work is exceptionally tight, especially given the need to go through a state procurement processes.”

Kennedy said he wasn’t able to speak with Griswold until last week. After hearing her concerns on the timeline, he today brought forward an amendment he said “split the difference” between her request to push implementation back to 2024 and Boulder’s 2023 election.

“What we thought would make the most sense is try to bifurcate this process so that everything that needs to be done for single county elections will be done ahead of the 2023 election,” he said. “But for any cities that span multiple counties, they’re going to have to wait two more years until 2025 so that we can finish completing these statewide processes.”

Kennedy also said the fiscal note on the bill was designed “to try to take [costs] off the shoulders of the local government.” He said the Finance Committee, where the legislation heads next, will continue to work on the bill and pledge to examine ways to bring the overall cost down.

Read more on ColoradoPolitics.com

A bill to make ranked choice voting an easier option for cities passes its first committee test

By Megan Lopez (February 22, 2021)

DENVER — A Colorado House committee has advanced a bill to make it easier for cities and counties to transition to a ranked choice voting system.

Ranked choice, or instant runoff elections, is a system where voters would pick one candidate as their top choice, another as their second, another as their third and so on. When the votes are counted, if no candidate has earned more than 50% of the vote, the candidates with fewest first place votes are removed from the race.

Those ballots then go to whichever candidates the voter ranked as their second choice. If no clear victor comes from those choices, the process repeats itself until someone wins.

House Bill 21-1107 would require the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to come up with a uniform set of rules for the implementation and certification of this type of voting. The bill does not require cities or counties to take up the voting system.

“It’s the Colorado way. It’s 100% optional. This is opt-in — there is no mandate here. We want to provide the framework for the municipalities who choose through a council vote or a vote of their own people to opt into a voting system,” said Rep. Jeni Ardnt, a bill co-sponsor.

The office would also establish an audit process for it and find a software provider for counties to use to run these elections.

“Cities already are allowed to use ranked choice of voting under current law. The current law is that the county clerks are not allowed to help them with this, and so our bill is basically clearing that barrier so if the city wants to opt in to ranked choice voting, they can do it through their county coordinated election,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, another co-sponsor of the bill.

For now, Ardnt and Kennedy say this is a pilot project to see how this type of system is handled and received on a smaller scale before considering changes for state or federal elections.

“This is more of an opt-in proof of concept before we really go big,” Ardnt said.

During the public testimony phase of the bill’s first hearing, Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver spoke in support of the bill. Voters in Boulder approved of ranked choice voting for their mayor’s race beginning in 2023.

The bill advanced out of committee without any Republican support.

Denver voting changes

While Colorado legislators consider ranked choice voting changes, Denver Elections is also taking a closer look at its voting systems and whether it’s time for an update.

“One of the things we need to address is the fact that Denver’s charter is a little bit antiquated compared to modern election law,” said Paul Lopez, Denver clerk and recorder.

The city is hosting a series of meetings to discuss how to modernize its election charter.

One of the changes Denver is considering is whether to begin the municipal election process a little earlier in order to allow overseas voters more time to review and return their ballots, particularly in runoff elections.

“Our goal is to get something on the November ballot for Denver voters to consider, at the very minimum, allowing us a little bit more time, which would be having the municipal elections start a little bit earlier so that everybody has the same ability to review their ballot and make an educated vote,” Lopez said.

Along with discussing changes to the timing, Denver has also started to take a closer look at alternative voting methods, like ranked choice and approval voting, as options moving forward to gauge public interest.

“At the end of the day, we want to keep voting as easy as possible for voters,” Lopez said.

Denver is hosting a community town hall Wednesday for people to weigh in on the proposed changes, as well as alternative voting methods. The meeting is happening virtually at 6 p.m.

The proposed changes would then appear on the November ballot for Denver voters to have the final say.

Read more on TheDenverChannel.com and ColoradoSun.com.

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