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Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

An effort to bring ranked-choice voting to Pueblo has quietly started lining up support for a more ambitious target — the statewide 2020 ballot — that could have sweeping implications for Colorado politics.

Ranked-choice voting — also known as an “instant runoff” election — has garnered national attention in recent years, most notably because of its adoption in Maine, where voters cast the first ranked-choice congressional ballots ever in the 2018 midterms.

The concept is simple: Rather than cast a ballot for one person, voters rank the candidates from their first choice to their least favorite. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated. The second choice for voters who gave top ranking to the last-place finisher are then counted, adding to the vote totals of the remaining candidates. This process repeats until one candidate receives a true majority.

At its best, supporters believe the new procedure could have a transformative impact on our country’s politics, empowering consensus-building over divisive partisanship and, most significantly, eliminating the “spoiler effect” of voting for a third-party candidate.

“Our political system has become so toxic that we just can’t keep doing things this way,” said Linda Templin, the executive director of RCV for Colorado. “It’s not in our national interest to have such an acrimonious environment where people are looking at their neighbors like they’re the enemy.”

At least, that’s the theory. While ranked-choice voting has been adopted in a handful cities across the country, Maine represents the first true test case for how it will impact the most partisan of environments: a federal election. And it’s too soon to draw conclusions on how it could affect that state’s politics.

Still, in Colorado, the concept is already drawing interest from key players. The Colorado chapter of the League of Women Voters has agreed to assist the effort, Templin said. And Kent Thiry, the deep-pocketed DaVita CEO who helped bring open primaries and anti-gerrymandering reforms to the state, told The Colorado Sun that he is interested in exploring the idea — although he stopped short of an outright endorsement.

“The electoral engine of America’s democracy needs oiling every now and then,” Thiry said in a statement. “A number of our partners from (past) efforts believe ranked-choice voting will strengthen representation and competitiveness, and I’m eager to study the issue more closely and determine whether the broader community agrees.”

Weighing the implications of ranked-choice voting

Templin has field-tested the idea at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver and at the annual meeting of the Green Party of the United States.

She has held mock elections in local breweries and coffee shops to crown a best beer or pastry to demonstrate how it works.

And she says the reception — no matter the audience — is the same.

“Everybody loves it,” Templin, a registered Green Party voter, said in an interview. “Because conservative voters feel just like progressive voters — that they can’t really vote their values. They have to pick the lesser of two evils.”

Real-world examples aren’t difficult to imagine, and they cut both ways. If Ralph Nader voters ranked Democrat Al Gore second, Gore may have defeated Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race. If Ross Perot voters ranked Republican George H.W. Bush second, he may have defeated Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

At the very least, it sidesteps the third-party spoiler effect and could even provide a plausible path to victory for political independents in Colorado, where most voters don’t identify with either major party.

But supporters believe it can do more than simply change the outcome in a few close races or simply boost the vote totals of third-party candidates. Eventually, they hope it will lead to more-positive campaigns, making candidates more wary of alienating moderates with negative ads or ideologically extreme positions.

“If they know this is coming up, then they’re not going to be so radicalized during the primary,” said Nick Thomas, an independent candidate who ran unsuccessfully in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District in 2018. “They’re going to actually be more representative of the general population.”

Critics of ranked-choice voting, however, worry about unintended consequences. Unqualified candidates who may have had their weaknesses exposed in a head-to-head runoff could conceivably emerge victorious from a crowded field. And some studies have found that in cities with ranked-choice voting, clear patterns emerged: Whiter, more-affluent voters were likelier than minority populations and the poor to rank multiple candidates instead of just their first choice.

A system with a mixed record in Colorado

Ranked-choice voting has been tried in Colorado before — with mixed results.

Telluride has used it, with little controversy, since 2008. The Aspen City Council adopted it for local races in 2009, but it was promptly repealed by the city’s voters in a referendum.

An early goal for Templin’s group is proving that voters want it at the local level. They plan to put a measure on Pueblo’s ballot in November 2019 — and possibly do the same with Denver’s ballot, as well as the ballots of other Front Range cities, depending on polling and other campaign considerations.

As for the statewide ballot, it’s unclear at this stage how supporters will proceed. They could go the route of 2016’s open-primary initiatives, which were adopted via ballot initiative over the objections of the party establishment. Or, if they find enough political support, they could take the path of this year’s anti-gerrymandering reforms, which were referred to the ballot by the state legislature with the support of party leaders.

In the meantime, all eyes will be on Maine to see whether the state’s voters — who, in a rebuke to the state’s leadership, approved it twice — have buyer’s remorse.

Brian Eason writes about the Colorado state budget, tax policy, PERA and housing. He's passionate about explaining how our government works, and why it often fails to serve the public interest. Topic expertise: Public finance, tax policy,...