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With rank choice systems, your vote counts more

Pick your favorites

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Templin sits down with Gary Casimir and others on the Peak Reality Check podcast. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Templin sits down with Gary Casimir and others on the Peak Reality Check podcast.

American elections may not be rigged, but they do have an uncomfortable tendency to crown a winner that most voters dislike.

And, no, that’s not only true when it comes to the race for president, nor is it just due to the Electoral College. Think smaller: state legislative races, county commissioner contests, battles for seats on city councils and school boards.

Consider the case of a popular third-party or outsider candidate for a state House seat. Let’s say her name is Julie. A lot of progressive voters really like Julie’s ideas. In fact, a good number of them like Julie’s views a lot more than they like those of the official Democratic candidate, Dave. 

But Julie’s supporters are hesitant to vote for her. It’s expected to be a close election, and casting a vote for Julie might mean handing the election to Georgina, the Republican candidate.

Here’s another scenario: Four candidates are running for a single city council seat in a conservative district. Bill, Bob and Bud are all traditional conservatives, and each has a strong base. Jillian, the fourth candidate, is a progressive. Since there are still some progressives in the district, Jillian has backers too. When the election comes, Bill, Bob and Bud together garner 73 percent of the vote. But Jillian wins the election because, with 27 percent, she gets a bigger share of the votes than any of the conservative candidates.

Linda Templin, executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Linda Templin, executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado

Sound familiar? Linda Templin is executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, a 4-year-old movement that began as an issue committee before incorporating a couple years ago. She says that people of all political persuasions are disgusted with elections because they simply aren’t fair.

But they could be.

Imagine that instead of voting for a single candidate for an office, you could vote for as many as you wanted, ranking them in order from your most to least favorite.

If your first choice doesn’t garner enough votes to win, your vote still counts — it just goes to your second choice. If your second choice doesn’t win, your vote transfers to your third choice.

So let’s take the case of those voters who really liked Julie, but didn’t want Georgina to win. They would simply label Julie their first choice and Dave their second choice. If Julie doesn’t get the votes needed to win — and she probably won’t — their votes go to Dave. Meanwhile, if Julie decides to run again, she can brag about all the people who made her their first choice in the past election.

In the case of Bill, Bob and Bud, conservative voters could rank each in order of preference without worrying about “splitting the vote.” One of the three would have won the seat, rather than Jillian, who isn’t representative of the district’s politics.

When there are multiple winners in a race — say a council race where the top three vote-getters win — the top candidate only “keeps” the number of votes needed to win a seat. The extra votes are redistributed to second-choice candidates in a way that’s proportional to how the winner’s voters cast their ballots. Templin says to imagine it as a sort of champagne fountain. When the glass at the top is full, the excess is redistributed to the glasses below it, and then the glasses below those.

In an election where there is a single winner, the winner must collect more than 50 percent of the vote (whether from first-choice, second-choice, third-choice, etc. ballots). In an election with more than one winner, let’s say two seats, the winners must garner more than 66.67 percent of votes.

Long story short: With ranked choice voting, your opinion matters. But, like anything to do with the elections, it’s a little more complicated and controversial than it looks.

Templin is seated at a table in the den of local activist Dave Gardner’s Bear Creek-area home.

Gary Casimir, along with Deidre LaRock and Lyn Myers are seated with her, recording the Peak Reality Check podcast.

Casimir, who calls himself a “one-person campaign” for ranked choice, thinks the system will change the outcome of local and regional elections — even claiming it’s the secret to booting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, whose staying power in elections is legendary.

“When we go statewide,” Casimir says, “it will change the complexion of the county.”

On the podcast, Templin chats about the big-name proponents of ranked choice: Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll, presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, conservative icon Grover Norquist — yes, you heard that last one right. In fact, Templin, a lifelong progressive, says ranked choice voting appeals to anyone who doesn’t believe the current voting system is fair — and that’s most people.

When she recently talked to the crowds at the Western Conservative Summit, she says she saw “visible relief” from people when she told them ranked choice eliminated the need to simply “pick between two evils.”

In an earlier conversation with the Independent, she pointed out that the system also allows more people — often women and minorities — to stay in a race longer without being driven out by party bosses due to fear that they’ll siphon votes from “viable” candidates.

“It’s the voters,” Templin says, “that decide who’s viable.”

And there are other benefits: Ranked choice would eliminate the need for Colorado Springs to hold a run-off election for the office of mayor if one candidate doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote in the first round — an election she estimates to cost $560,000. (Asked about that, City Clerk Sarah Johnson couldn’t put an exact dollar figure on the cost, but said city elections generally cost “around $400,000.”)

Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado uses these sample ballots to explain the system. - RANKED CHOICE VOTING FOR COLORADO
  • Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado
  • Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado uses these sample ballots to explain the system.

Ranked Choice for Colorado lists many advantages to the system:

• It promotes majority support by doing away with winners who only get a plurality of the vote.

• It discourages negative campaigning. This might not be as intuitive, but in ranked choice voting, a candidate needs broad appeal to win. In 2013, Professor Caroline J. Tolbert, of the University of Iowa, and Professor Todd Donovan, of Western Washington University, conducted a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll about ranked choice elections, at the request of FairVote, a nonpartisan group advocating election reform.

In November 2013, they surveyed 2,400 likely voters in seven cities that did not use ranked choice and three that did. Another survey was taken in November 2014 of over 2,400 likely voters in 11 cities, including four with ranked choice. In both cases, voters found the ranked choice campaigns less negative. And voters willing to offer an opinion supported ranked choice voting.

• It provides more choice. This one is simple: Since ranked choice eliminates the need for primaries, voters have more candidates to choose from.

• It minimizes strategic voting. With ranked choice, there’s no need to pick between “two evils.” Voters can rank a favorite candidate No. 1 without a fear of “throwing away” their votes.

• It minimizes the impact of money in politics. This may be a little tougher to prove, but proponents say that ranked choice encourages grassroots campaigning and point out that fundraising underdogs have been known to win ranked choice elections.

• It saves money by replacing primaries or runoffs. We asked the city clerk about this one. Johnson says that since Colorado Springs rents voting equipment, and ranked choice is a more complex process, using the system would probably cost more than running a normal election. But would it cost more than hosting a runoff? No. It’s also worth noting that runoffs and primaries often have lower voter participation.

• It promotes reflective representation. Proponents claim that ranked choice is more likely to elect minorities and women, particularly in multiple-winner scenarios, for instance, a race to fill three at-large city council seats. FairVote notes that ranked choice delivered firsts for diversity in cities like Minneapolis and Oakland.

Ranked choice voting isn’t a new concept. According to FairVote, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used ranked choice for city council and school board races since the 1940s. Various governments have adopted its use, at least in a limited format, including Berkeley, California; Minneapolis; Oakland; Portland, Maine; San Francisco; San Leandro, California; Santa Fe; St. Paul; and Takoma Park, Maryland. In Colorado, Telluride has used the system for limited circumstances in mayoral races since 2011, and Carbondale and Basalt have authorized it for similar votes.

Aspen used the system in 2009 with disastrous results, including lawsuits questioning the results’ validity, and then repealed a law calling for its use. But Dwight Shellman, county support manager for the Elections Division of the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, notes that Aspen’s 2009 voting system was not certified by the state. (Cities aren’t required to use voting systems that are tested and OK’d by the state, but counties are.)

So is it possible to implement ranked choice voting here? That depends what you mean by “here.”

Colorado statute has allowed statutory municipalities (which fall under and are limited by state law), and some special districts to adopt ranked choice voting since 2008, and home rule cities like Colorado Springs have always been free to implement their own rules. (Though Johnson says, “My understanding is that it would [require] a [city] charter change, but I’m not an attorney.”)

State and county elections, however, are not legally open to ranked choice and state law would have to change to allow them.

Perhaps most important, the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office states that there has been no interest expressed in ranked choice voting, and Johnson echoes that sentiment.

City Councilor Wayne Williams - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • City Councilor Wayne Williams

Colorado Springs City Councilor Wayne Williams, who as the former Colorado Secretary of State is more informed on ranked choice than most, isn’t pushing for a change — largely because he hasn’t made up his mind about the system. On the plus side, Williams says ranked choice does reduce negative campaigning. And he says that elections with runoffs don’t always end up with two moderate candidates, while ranked choice often does — a plus in his book.

“It has some advantages in that you don’t have to do a runoff,” he says. “But as you know, it gets hard as a voter if you’re trying to rank everybody.”

Case in point: the April 2019 City Council election, which had 11 candidates. (Even Templin says that best practices are to not ask voters to rank more than six candidates.)

“I don’t know how I would have ranked all the people I ran with for City Council,” Williams says “... And I’m a high-information voter who was at every forum. So that’s the part that concerns me.”

Or one of the parts, anyway. Williams also says that while a runoff is expensive, it provides clarity to voters — who choose between two candidates rather than as many as a dozen. And he flat-out disagrees that ranked choice lowers campaign costs. All candidates must appeal to everyone, which means a steep increase in costs.

“I don’t see how you can say it doesn’t require more money, logically,” he says. “There’s no way to reach more people for less money.”

Perhaps most concerning, Williams says there are some complexities to be worked out. What happens, he asks, when a voter chooses only a first choice and sixth choice? Is the sixth-choice vote simply eliminated? Is the vote tracked all the way down to the voter’s sixth choice?

Before he left the Secretary of State’s office, Williams had received enough interest in ranked choice voting from municipalities that he created a rule governing its use — sort of a basic guideline. Williams had hoped to revisit that rule the following year with the help and input of a working group.

Now, the Secretary of State’s Office confirms, Williams’ successor, Jena Griswold, is continuing that work. The group will be formed in the coming months and will likely also consider other alternative voting methods like approval voting, in which voters simply mark a box for all the candidates they like and whomever has the most votes wins.

Finer points aside, from a purely practical standpoint, the technology exists to perform ranked choice voting. According to Shellman, Colorado Springs and El Paso County both use the Dominion Voting System brand of voting technology, as do 61 of 64 counties in the state. Dominion can tabulate ranked choice.

Two counties, Douglas and Garfield, use Clear Ballot technology which can’t currently handle ranked choice, but may be able to soon. Jackson County hand counts its ballots.

But Shellman notes, “Only one state authorizes ranked voting for federal contests; that’s Maine and that’s very recent. As a result of that, there are no existing voter system requirements or specifications that state exactly what a ranked voting system must do.”

In other words, think back to what Williams said about the guy who votes for only his first and sixth choice — there are no rules for what happens to his ballot.

Here’s another issue: If a race includes more than one county’s system (say it’s a senate district that stretches across counties) all those votes would have to be centrally tabulated in order to use ranked choice. That would likely happen at the Secretary of State’s Office.

But that creates a problem. The counties would either have to send the private voting information over the internet, which is never done in Colorado because it raises the risk of hacking, or all the ballots would have to be hand-delivered to the SoS Office. (That’s what Maine did recently, using state patrol vehicles.)

What’s more, counties cannot use voting systems for their elections that haven’t been certified by the Secretary of State and the state hasn’t done that for Dominion’s ranked choice option yet. (The same rule does not necessarily hold true for city elections, though it can, depending on the type of election, and if a county is running the election on a city’s behalf.)

Sound complex? Well, it is. But ranked choice has already proven feasible in other states, and interest is growing in Colorado. Shellman recalls that in 2018 Pueblo, Denver and Broomfield all expressed some preliminary interest in the system.

For proponents like Templin and Casimir, that’s exciting news. As Casimir says, “The whole thing is to get more people to vote and more people to run.”

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