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After a contentious 2020 election, some say it's time to try ranked choice voting

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Posted at 4:00 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-23 00:41:35-05

DENVER — The 2020 election may have just wrapped up but already some Coloradans are taking a closer look at whether the voting system should change.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and Denver have hosted meetings in recent months to discuss the idea of moving to a ranked choice voting system.

What is ranked choice voting?

Currently, Colorado and much of the United States uses a plurality voting system, meaning people choose one candidate to support and whoever has the most votes wins.

In a ranked choice, or instant runoff system, 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.

Australia has been using ranked choice voting for more than 100 years and other countries also use the system for their elections.

In 2020, Maine became the first state in the country to use ranked choice voting in a presidential election. Alaska will also begin using the system starting in 2022.

However, other areas have used this system in the past and continue to use them, including in Colorado.

In fact, Grand Junction was the first city in the U.S. to ever attempt a type of choice voting back in 1909. Denver also used a type of ranked choice voting from 1913 until 1935 after a particularly contentious election where Ben Stapleton won.

These days, Basalt and Telluride are the only areas in Colorado that use ranked choice voting to determine the winner of their mayoral races.

Basalt adopted the system in 2002 but has not had more than two mayoral candidates during any one election since then, and has not tested the system out until the 2020 election.

In November, Boulder voters also decided that they would like to start using ranked choice voting to pick their mayor starting in 2023.

The push for ranked choice voting

Supporters of ranked choice voting say when people head to the ballot box, the current plurality system causes them to feel like they can’t necessarily vote with their values.

“On Election Day, many voters feel cornered,” said Linda Templin, the executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado. “It becomes like an existential crisis and people end up holding their noses and voting for the lesser of two evils.”

Because of this, she believes the plurality system can cause people to try to vote strategically for the candidate they think can win rather than for someone who reflects their values, particularly in primaries.

Supporters of a change argue the new system would allow people to more closely vote their values by picking who they love first, who they like second, and who they could live with, third.

“It’s a systemic change that’s going to change how we see each other and how we build consensus together,” Templin said.

Beyond that, supporters say the change would save money since expensive runoff elections would no longer need to happen to determine a winner and it could help military and overseas voters since they don’t always get their ballots in time to participate in the runoff race.

They also say moving away from plurality could allow third-party or minority party candidates to have a better chance at winning an election.

More extreme candidates would also have a more difficult time winning since they may have a passionate base but are not anyone else’s second or third choice.

Supporters also argue it would force candidates to spend more time focusing on the issues.

“What we expect to see here in Colorado is more competition and competition on the ideas — not mudslinging — on the ideas, and it really changes the way candidates have to campaign because they might need those second or third choice vote last to build a win,” Templin said.

The downsides of the 2020 Democratic primaries

The 2020 Democratic primaries are perhaps an example of how ranked choice voting could help, according to state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat who represents Arapahoe and Denver counties.

Colorado has a robust early voting system that many people took advantage of in the Democratic primaries.

However, between the time many cast their ballots and primary day, several candidates, like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, had dropped out of the race. As a result, more than 150,000 ballots in Colorado were not counted.

“I think people were frustrated in the spring when their vote for president weren’t necessarily counted,” Hansen said.

In a ranked choice voting system, if a voter’s first choice candidate drops out, their second choice would move up and the ballots wouldn’t be thrown out.

“It would be nice to have this option available to make sure that that doesn’t happen again in the future, and I think it’s also a system that can work really well for party primaries for state elections in Colorado,” Hansen said.

He likes the idea of ranked choice voting, as he believes it holds a lot of promise and says it’s something both Republicans and Democrats have shown support for in the past.

One of the benefits he sees is the fact that the system would eliminate runoffs, which historically do not have as much voter turnout.

“We have constantly improved our system here and I see this as an idea that clearly fits into the long history. So we’re not afraid to do that and if we can make this democracy work better, we should do it,” he said.

However, with so much to take on in the 2021 legislative session from Colorado’s COVID-19 response to its economic recovery, he’s not sure this year is the right time to try to take on a statewide change.

Aspen’s attempt at ranked choice voting

One of the first areas in Colorado to try ranked choice voting in modern days was Aspen. Voters first approved of the concept in 2007 and then tried it out for the first time during the races for mayor and city council in 2009.

Marilyn Marks was one of for candidates for the mayor’s race and lost the election after an instant runoff. From the start, Marks says she was critical of the concept.

“I had challenged the whole idea of rank choice voting the entire time of the election and the bottom line is that the citizens were so dissatisfied with the way that it operated that after the first election, which is the election where I ran and lost, they decided never to have it again,” she said.

She argues that the concept sounds simple but in reality, it is troublesome and non-transparent.

The way the instant runoff ballots are counted can also be confusing and is difficult for the average voter to understand.

There were also technical issues with the Aspen election. At 7 p.m. on the night before the election, officials performed a test run to see how the system was working.

Marks’ campaign manager observed the test run and saw that the wrong person was projected to be the winner of the race.

The election officials discovered that the system was working backwards and projected the person with the fewest number of votes to be the winner.

Officials then had to work through the night to fix the error.

After the election, an analysis found that the count was off by dozens of votes, because of last minute changes to the system. The votes were not enough to change the outcome of the election, but the city did not disclose the error until after the deadline for candidates to formally contest the election.

A year later, the Aspen Times wrote an in-depth article about all of the issues that happened with the 2009 election.

During a time when some segments of the population are still questioning the integrity of the 2020 election, Marks believes a switch to ranked choice voting would be a bad idea.

“I think we see what happens when people, citizens, don’t feel that they can verify how the election was determined,” she said.

Beyond that, she argues the traditional runoff process is good since it gives voters time to learn more about the top two candidates and make up their minds.

Trade-offs with big changes

Anytime there is a big change, there are always trade-offs. While the cost of running a runoff election might go away, there is also a cost associated with switching over the election system.

El Paso County Clerk Chuck Boerman has told media outlets in Colorado Springs that switching to the new system could cost his county as much as $350,000.

There would also need to be a robust education campaign to help voters understand how the process works.

“I do think one of the biggest downsides is, you do have to do some voter education and there would be a learning curve that would come with it,” said Matthew Hitt, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. “County clerks and the Colorado Secretary of State would have to work very hard to be exceedingly transparent about the entirety of this process.”

One of the things that could be particularly complicated to explain to voters is why a candidate in third or fourth place during the first run of counting might eventually end up winning the race.

He’s also not sure that the outcome of the elections will be radically different than the current system or than minor party candidates will really have more of a chance with the change.

Still, Hit sees potential for the system in Colorado, saying that it could motivate people to vote more with their values than strategically in order to try to beat another candidate.

“I think it certainly has potential. I think it’s a question of, what do we think we’re going to get out of it realistically that we don’t already have? Is it worth the confusion and inevitable controversies and litigation that are going to be coming?” Hitt said.

To change or stay the same

With the 2020 presidential race now over, already some are looking toward the next election cycle.

Denver and the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office have started the conversations about ranked choice voting, but those discussions are far from complete.

Before anything changes, it will take a big move either by voters or lawmakers to approve of a switch. First, cities and the state will have to figure out whether this is the right move at the right time.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.