Our elections today are full of divisive candidates, many of them elected without most voters’ support. In Colorado, our present system requires candidates to receive only a simple plurality, which is to say, at least one more vote than the second-place candidate.
Unfortunately, this means that a candidate can receive even as little as a third of the vote and still be elected because the remaining votes could be split among enough candidates that no one gets a majority of the votes.
As I see it, the solution to this problem is ranked-choice voting (RCV). It’s a system that has been adopted in several states and cities nationwide and in the Colorado communities of Carbondale, Telluride and Basalt.
Using the traditional plurality voting method in the 2019 Aurora mayoral race, Mike Coffman won with less than 36% of the vote in a crowded field. In the 2020 race for Colorado House District 27, Brianna Titone won re-election in a three-way race with less than 49% of the vote. And the 2020 race for Regional Transportation District director in District H handed the win to Doug Tisdale with less than 42% of the vote over two challengers.
In an RCV election, instead of voting for a single candidate, voters rank multiple candidates by preference. Once the polls are closed, and after the first round of counting, if one candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice vote, they are declared the winner.
However, after completing the first round of counting, if no candidate has received more than 50% of the first-choice vote, an “instant runoff” is triggered. Instead of being forced to hold an expensive and drawn-out runoff election at some future date, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets removed.
Then, voters who chose that now-former candidate as their first choice have their second-round votes added to each remaining candidate’s total. This process repeats until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.
Most of us use this exact method in everyday decisions like choosing pizza toppings or renting a movie in a group setting. We ask each person what their preference is and go with the one which has the most support. Why would anyone go with what the fewest people said was their preference?
State Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, is carrying a bill in this year’s legislative session that would make ranked-choice voting easier for Colorado cities and towns.
RCV is a reform supported by non-partisan groups like Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado and Stand Up Republic because it would require candidates to receive the majority of votes to win, incentivizing them to appeal to more voters.
This threshold would put into play what another electoral reform organization, FairVote, calls the “Civil Campaigning” effect. It’s the idea that candidates would be less likely to either join in on mudslinging or seek to use the divide-and-conquer strategy as both could alienate voters who might otherwise have picked them as a second choice.
Numerous polarizing candidates have increasingly bubbled up across the nation through party nominations, some even getting elected. Correlations between an increase in divisive candidates and a nationwide trend toward division are clear.
The widespread shift towards division is made clear in Pew Research’s 2014 publication, “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Though most Americans try to do their part, one of the study’s findings indicated, “the most politically polarized are more actively involved in politics, amplifying the voices that are the least willing to see the parties meet each other halfway.”
Yet, when using RCV, voters are no longer stuck voting for the loudest candidate they see as just less-worse than the other. Instead, voters rank the candidate they think best represents them as their first selection while not left to wonder if doing so throws away their vote. The next choice voters make is someone who they still think will represent them, just not as much as the first candidate, and so on.
RCV has demonstrated itself as depolarizing in local, state, and even national elections across the world. In the U.S., RCV is used to nominate candidates and elect officials in various local or state races in 20 states. Some states even use RCV in presidential elections, and it’s been in use for over a century in the Republic of Ireland.
The damage that our political polarization is having on our national unity is painfully apparent. Let’s improve our great country by defusing polarization and by demanding better candidates and better representation using ranked-choice voting.
Justin Kurth of Penrose is a Colorado leader of Stand Up Republic and an undergraduate political science major at Colorado State University Pueblo.
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