In good news, Colorado’s recent election led to a bipartisan victory to pass ranked choice voting in Broomfield. As the inaugural city and county to apply this voting method to all municipal races, this win likely holds implications for voters statewide.
But first, what is RCV?
Ranked choice voting is a method that allows voters to rank multiple candidates at the ballot box, rather than picking just one. This method features several benefits, most notably by offering improved choices to voters and avoiding costly runoff elections.
For example, if there were a three-way race between Palisade peaches, Pueblo chiles and Rocky Ford cantaloupes for Colorado’s favorite food, in our current voting system you are forced to pick only one — even if you like them all.
In RCV, you could rank all three according to your preferences. If your favorite is peaches, that gets ranked as choice number one. If your second favorite is a cantaloupe, that’s choice number two. The third choice then goes to chiles — unless you don’t like Pueblo chiles, in which case you don’t vote for them at all because you probably aren’t a Coloradan.
These rankings are then tallied across voters. If there are 100 voters total, perhaps 40 first picks went for cantaloupe, 35 went for chiles, and 25 went to peaches. If the threshold to win is 50% of the first-choice votes, normally, no one wins and a runoff election is triggered.
In RCV, however, the process is an instant runoff. As peaches are the lowest, they get knocked out, leaving the 40 first picks for cantaloupes and 35 first picks for chiles. All of the peach voters then get their second choice applied to the remaining voting tallies. If 20 of the peach voters listed cantaloupes second, and 5 of the peach voters listed chiles as second, then the final totals are 60 votes for cantaloupes and 40 for chiles — Rocky Ford cantaloupe wins.
Alternatively, had the peach voters’ second choices been inverted — 20 second-choice votes for chiles and only 5 for cantaloupes — then Pueblo chiles would win the race 55 to 45.
This could have already had real impacts on recent Colorado elections. For example, according to RCV for Colorado Political Director Emma Donahue, in the 2020 primary, “150,000 Democratic Primary Voters in Colorado did not have their vote counted because their candidate dropped out before Colorado’s primary election day.” Ranked choice voting would alleviate this, she explains, because the voter’s second choices are applied.
Although some critics worry it’s too complicated for voters, exit polls from states such as Maine show the method has overwhelming support. In one exit poll, over 74% of voters found it “somewhat or very easy” to rank candidate choices. That’s good news for Broomfield voters as this ranking method will now be applied starting in 2023.
Ranked choice voting is also already active in Boulder, Telluride and Basalt, with voters in other cities likely to see the ballot measure soon.
For Fort Collins, it may be as early as 2022. Robbie Moreland, a volunteer co-leader of the Ranked Choice Voting for Fort Collins Steering Committee, says efforts are already under way. At least four of the seven council members have publicly endorsed support for ranked choice voting, along with multiple county commissioners, local leaders and Fort Collins Mayor Jeni Arndt, according to the website.
Moreland says the interest to employ ranked choice voting picked up quickly after residents saw “vote-splitting” in action. As Moreland explains it, during a recent election, four of the five candidates running for a council seat were more similar on the issues. This ultimately divided the majority of voters among the four candidates, leading a fifth candidate to win, despite representing a minority of voter preferences on issues.
“This really motivated people,” Moreland says, explaining that by using ranked choice voting this outcome may have been avoided. She is one of two co-leaders spearheading the efforts with general support from RCV for Colorado.
Other locations on the horizon include Castle Rock and Colorado Springs. Curiously, the city and county of Denver recently rejected an opportunity to pursue it, despite a comprehensive report by the city and county Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez showing it could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With RCV reaching the ballot for so many Coloradans, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a statewide initiative as early as 2024. At a time when we agree on so little, a bipartisan civic improvement is a welcome change.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.