Colorado Considers Ranked Choice Voting Experiment

Bill would allow for ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan local elections

House Bill 1071, now before the House Finance Committee, would allow for ranked choice voting for nonpartisan local elections. / LAW WEEK FILE

A committee of the Colorado House of Representatives has given the first push forward to a bill that would allow Colorado cities and towns to use an instant-runoff voting system in local elections. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, HB21-1071 would permit voters to elect local officials through a process of ranking three or more candidates in some municipal elections starting in 2023. 

In an instant-runoff or ranked-choice election, the top candidate wins if they receive 50% or more of the votes. If the selection with the most votes does not reach that threshold, the lowest- ranked candidate is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are then distributed to higher-finishing competitors in the race. Then the race goes to another round and continues in that manner until only two candidates remain and one of them receives more than half of the votes.

“For many local governments, ranked choice voting makes perfect sense,” Arndt said in a press release. “It’s less expensive than a run-off election, increases civility during campaigns and ensures that the candidate with the most support wins the office.” During a conversation Thursday Kennedy amplified the expectation of an election with a more uplifting tone if ranked-choice voting is used. “Some people believe that ranked-choice voting actually increases the civility of the election,” he said. “If you need to be someone’s second choice-vote, it might [make you] less likely to attack your opponent in a negative way and … instead stay focused on a positive message.” The reduction in negative campaigning that correlates with ranked-choice voting has been noted in at least one academic study. “People in cities with preferential voting were also less likely to view campaigns as negative, and less likely to respond that candidates were frequently criticizing each other,” according to one 2016 paper.

The reform also seems to assure voters that their ballots are not wasted. Benjamin Reilly, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Western Australia in Perth who has studied ranked-choice voting systems, told TIME magazine in November 2019 that one reason for its popularity among voters is that “they didn’t need to worry about wasting their vote if they wanted to vote for one of the smaller parties.” Reilly also described ranked-choice voting as a “prophylactic against extremism.” There is some evidence that ranked-choice voting counters political polarization. 

Ranked-choice voting is used in at least 25 states, with most using the system in primary elections, according to Alaska and Maine are the only two states in which it is currently approved for use in some or all general elections. In nine states, the method is applied in municipal elections. says that, as of November 2020, nearly 9.3 million adult American citizens, or about 3% of the population, “live in U.S. jurisdictions that currently use RCV or [that] have adopted RCV and plan to implement it for their next round of elections.” Around the world, countries that use ranked-choice voting for at least one type of public election include Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

In Colorado, the cities and towns that have recently used, or soon will use, the ranked-choice voting system include Basalt, Boulder, Carbondale and Telluride. Basalt, a Western Slope town of about 3,850 residents that straddles Eagle and Pitkin counties, first used a ranked-choice voting system to elect its mayor in April 2020 after having it on the books since 2002. According to its town clerk, Pam Schilling, Basalt’s experience was positive. “For us, it went very smoothly,” she said. Schilling said she thinks most voters understood how to use the ranked-choice ballot and, according to an April 2020 Triton Polling study, nearly 95% of Basalt voters thought the ranked-choice ballots were easy to understand and more than 87% expressed satisfaction with the use of the ranked-choice system. 

By contrast, Telluride’s town clerk, Tiffany Kavanaugh, believes that voter understanding of ranked-choice voting can be a challenge for municipalities. “The questions that I did receive were really trying to understand that second round, if did go into a runoff,” she said. “It was really hard for the electorate to understand where their second-choice votes would be applied.” Kavanaugh also said that Telluride, which adopted the system in 2008 for mayoral elections in 2011, 2015, and 2019, proved to be a costly election administration option. “It is expensive,” she said. “The staff time that it takes is very significant.” Kavanaugh said the reason for the increased expense was the necessity for additional personnel to count votes. “We needed eight election judges for the system that we used for hand-counting, which is way more than you’d need in a typical election,” she said. Kavanaugh also said that, for Telluride, the cost to use electronic voting machines in one ranked-choice mayoral election would have been as much as $15,000-$20,000, an amount that she said Telluride “can’t afford.” 

Adoption of the system seems to be riding a recent overall wave of popularity. Since 2018, 12 cities around the country, including Boulder, have mandated its use for at least some elections, Alaska voters required that it be used in all statewide general and primary elections, and Maine voters imposed it for all state and federal primary elections and all general elections for members of Congress and the presidency. Virginia and Utah also recently enacted bills similar to Colorado’s proposed legislation.

Terrance Carroll of Denver, an attorney and former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who is now the state’s representative for the bipartisan political reform group Unite America, may have explained one reason for the concept’s broad geographic and, at least occasional, cross-party appeal when he told committee members that the bill advances “local control.” “Many people like to say that states are the laboratories of democracy,” Carroll said. “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.” 

Schilling agreed that a ranked-choice voting system might also lead to higher voter satisfaction with election outcomes. “It brings voters maybe a little closer together in that ‘O.K.,., well I didn’t get my first choice, but I got my second choice, and I can live with that,’” she said. “Maybe they’re not quite as divided.”

Under Colorado’s proposed bill, the Secretary of State would be required to write rules to govern the ranked-choice election method, and ranked-choice municipal elections would be managed by county clerk offices. That provision has drawn the praise of the Colorado Municipal League. In a December 2020 letter to Secretary of State Jena Griswold, CML’s executive director Kevin Bommer said the umbrella organization of the state’s cities and towns is “encouraged by the state’s focus on supporting the abilities of counties — both technically and financially — to accommodate municipal alternative voting in coordinated elections, while leaving the actual decision on which voting method to use to the municipalities themselves.”

To Schilling, the question whether the state should remove the current requirement that authorization to conduct a ranked-choice election be included in a municipal charter is really tied up with a community’s work to keep residents informed about civic affairs. “Change is always difficult in any form,” she said. “I think there’s some fear around that. There would need to be some good education and transparency in the process.”

The House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee approved the bill on Feb. 22 by a 7-4 vote, with all committee Republicans opposed. Kennedy said he is optimistic that he will be able to persuade at least one Republican legislator to support the measure, explaining that he is in conversation with a GOP senator. 

The measure is supported by the Colorado Municipal Clerks Association, the Colorado Municipal League and the League of Women Voters. HB21-1071 now heads to the chamber’s Finance Committee in order to provide legislators an opportunity to further refine the mechanism available to the Secretary of State to pay for implementation of the proposal. Kennedy said that he thinks the House Finance Committee is likely to hear the bill on March 11. 

— Hank Lacey

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