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Politics and Government

Colorado is a key state in the debate about the best way to pick candidates in elections

A referendum on the national popular vote and potential ballot measures on ranked-choice and approval voting are driving the debate

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All eyes are on the 2020 election, but some in Colorado are looking at future elections and debating how voters select candidates.

None of the changes will take effect this year, but the question about how elections are conducted will land on the November ballot. Colorado will consider the national popular vote, and perhaps other election reforms if advocates can get enough support to put them before voters.

The two ideas at the forefront are approval voting and ranked choice voting, and both of which were the topic of discussion Thursday when the secretary of state’s office hosted a meeting to talk about alternative voting methods.

“We’re really happy to facilitate that discussion and learn best practices, but also speak about some of the logistical issues,” said Secretary of State Jena Griswold after making a brief stop at the three-hour meeting.

Griswold told The Colorado Sun she is not endorsing or opposing any election changes, but wanted to be prepared if changes are made by the legislature or by ballot initiative. 

The first-term Democrat said she would prefer individual counties first try alternatives to the current winner-takes-all system, such as approval or ranked-choice voting, to see how they work on a smaller scale. Her staff said applying such changes statewide would require potentially expensive software changes, and make the current audit system difficult to use. 

Jena Griswold at an event with U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat running in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, in Denver on Dec. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s League of Women voters has been examining voting alternatives but hasn’t taken a position on potential changes. 

“We think that voters should be educated and look at their situation and see what voting method they would like to adopt,” said Celeste Landry, a Boulder County member of the League of Women Voters who has studied the issue and presented at the event.

Here’s a look at the alternative voting methods discussed at the meetings and others being used across the nation. 

The popular vote: What we have now means the winner is the “first past the post”

How it works: This is how Colorado votes now. All registered voters get a single vote in each contest, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins the election. There’s no requirement that a candidate exceed 50% — the winner only needs one more than the next closest vote-getter. Winning with less than 50% represents a plurality of the vote.

Where it’s used: Most states, including Colorado, and many municipalities in the United States use the plurality system based on a popular vote.

Why people like it: It’s what people are used to and understand. In addition, county and statewide voting systems are set up to handle the traditional method.

The potential downsides: A candidate could get elected with considerably less than half the vote. For instance, in the four-way 2014 Republican primary for governor, Bob Beauprez won with 30% of the vote, compared with about 27% for Tom Tancredo, his closest competitor. 

“When voters pick someone to represent them, for that individual to be able to govern in an effective manner, they need a mandate,” said Hans von Spakovsky, an election expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “And the only way you have a mandate is if a majority of the voters picked you.” 

Other critics say some voters may be discouraged by limited alternatives or feel the need to vote for someone they don’t totally support because that candidate has a better chance to win.

Majority voting: You need a majority to win, and often that requires a runoff

How it works: If no one gets a majority in the first round of voting, then a runoff is held between the top two candidates. It typically takes place a month or so later in a second election. It guarantees the winner will receive more than 50% of the vote.

Where it’s used: It’s a popular system. Denver uses the method for its mayoral elections.

Georgia and Louisiana both use runoffs for federal and state offices in general elections. Ten states use runoffs in primary elections.

Why people like it: The winner gets a majority vote. Von Spakovsky said the time between an initial election and a runoff gives voters the opportunity to learn more about candidates.

The potential downsides: Some say the final two candidates may not appeal to all voters. The second election also costs election officials more money and can take place at a time when fewer people are paying attention. Denver spent about $1 million to hold its most recent runoff, according to a spokesman for the clerk’s office.

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Ranked voting, or instant runoff voting: You get to rank the candidates

How it works: Instead of voting for a single candidate, a voter ranks candidates in order of preference: first, second, third, etc. This method is known as instant runoff voting or ranked choice voting. 

If one candidate doesn’t get a majority of votes after the first ballot count, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated. Those votes are transferred to the second-choice candidates until a single candidate tops 50%. 

The proponent of this method filed a potential ballot initiative in Colorado this week to use instant runoff voting in selecting U.S. congressional representatives.

Where it’s used: Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting in the 2016 election, and it was used in 2018 when a Democrat unseated a Republican congressman by winning on the second ballot. It’s also used in Basalt, Carbondale and Telluride for mayoral contests with three or more candidates. New York City will use it in 2021 elections. Several other municipalities around the nation also use the process.

Why people like it: Advocates say it allows more choices for voters, especially those who may favor a third-party candidate but feel compelled to pick a major-party candidate who has a better chance of winning in the plurality system. 

“Plenty of office-holders are tired of being called the lesser of two evils,” said Linda Templin of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado

The potential downsides: Ranked-choice voting would require new elections software at the state level and in most counties, which could prove expensive, clerks in Colorado warned. It also can take longer to process results and explain to voters what is happening. 

For example, it took several hours to count four rounds of voter choices in Santa Fe’s mayoral election in 2018, the first time the New Mexico city used the method. 

Denver voters cast ballots on Nov. 8, 2018 (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Approval voting: Vote for everyone you like

How it works: A voter may select every candidate they like in a specific contest, and the candidate with the most votes wins. In Colorado, advocates are collecting signatures to ask voters in November to institute approval voting in Colorado starting in 2022.

Where it’s used: In North Dakota, Fargo voters adopted approval voting in 2018 for city elections.

Why people like it: It allows voters to select any and all candidates they agree with, while avoiding those they don’t like. That may give third-party and independent candidates a better chance at winning elections. 

Proponents say it would be easier to implement in Colorado than ranked-choice voting. “You just essentially change the phrase that says choose only one,” said Nathan Clay, one of two people who worked to get the measure approved for signature gathering and a Democratic candidate in the 7th Congressional District. 

The potential downsides: A candidate could still be elected without receiving 50% of the total vote. Some say it would violate the “one person, one vote” rule, though proponents disagree.

Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver’s Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

National popular vote: A move to change how we elect U.S. presidents

How it works: The legislature passed a bill in 2019 to join the national popular vote compact. It would affect only how the state of Colorado presidential electors vote in the Electoral College.

If states representing 270 electoral votes agree to the compact, they would collectively cast their votes for the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate didn’t win their state. 

A group opposing Colorado’s decision to join the compact will ask voters to overturn the law in November. Depending on the outcome, the measure would take effect in 2024.

Where it’s used: So far, 16 states with a combined 196 electoral votes have agreed to join the compact. 

Why people like it: Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 won the popular vote nationwide but lost in the Electoral College count. That’s because electoral votes are based on the number of representatives and senators in each state, giving smaller states proportionately more power than more populous states. To end the use of the electoral college would require a change to the U.S. Constitution, which would be difficult. So the national popular vote compact is seen as a workaround.

The potential downsides: In Colorado, opponents argue that the change would allow “California to choose our next president.” They say smaller states need more representation, ensuring “that the minority always has a voice.” And it would mean that the state’s electoral votes could be cast for a candidate that its voters didn’t choose.


CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 7:25 a.m. on Feb 8, 2020, to clarify how the national popular vote would affect Colorado’s Electoral College participation.


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