If there are five people running for a city council seat, and you like more than one candidate, how do you decide which one to support?
A group of Fort Collins residents has a novel answer: vote for them all.
They’re campaigning for a change that would allow voters to rank every candidate on their ballot, rather than vote for just one. Each voter’s preferences would help pick the eventual winner, even if their favorite candidate doesn’t advance.
The approach, known as ranked choice voting, is about to be implemented in Boulder and Broomfield, and advocates say it can tamp down on divisive partisanship while encouraging voters to stay engaged with issues that affect them.
“We’ve had many elections where the winning candidate only got 30% of the vote or less,” said Robbie Moreland, a Fort Collins resident leading the campaign to get the city council to refer the issue to the November ballot. “We don’t have a lot of participation, and that could be the reason why. If you don’t feel like you’re making an impact, why vote?”
The challenge will be educating voters about a voting method that, while growing in public awareness, is still rarely used in the United States. Critics argue the voting method is too complicated for voters, and note that it could increase costs for running local elections. For example, cities might need to print and mail a separate ballot.
A similar initiative was rejected by Fort Collins voters in 2011, but advocates are hopeful growing awareness about the alternative voting method will boost its chances this time. At least four of the city’s seven council members have endorsed the idea, although the full council hasn’t had an official discussion of the issue. That includes Mayor Jeni Arndt, a Democrat and former state representative who sponsored a bill last year to make it easier for cities to implement ranked choice voting.
How does it work?
Under ranked choice or “instant runoff” voting, voters are asked to rank every candidate in order of their preference. Votes are tallied based on each voter’s first choice, and if a candidate gets a majority, they win outright.
But if no candidate gets a majority, contenders with the fewest votes are eliminated in rounds, with their votes redistributed to the next highest-ranked candidate on voters’ ballots. That continues until one candidate receives a majority.
Advocates say the method gives voters an opportunity to weigh in on every candidate. Even if their top candidate doesn’t win, voters can look for similarities or shared views in other candidates and still have that preference counted.
“Maybe with ranked choice voting we might get some more civic participation, more people being able to run because they’re not pushed out by someone else saying, ‘you’re going to wreck my chances,’” said Moreland.
Advocates point to last year’s city council election in Fort Collins, where five candidates ran for the District 4 seat. Four of those candidates were Democrats with similar platforms. Another candidate, Shirley Peel, campaigned as a conservative who could moderate an increasingly liberal council.
Peel won with 30% of votes, while the four progressive candidates split the remaining 70%. Advocates said it’s an example of how plurality voting — a system where a candidate wins by garnering more votes than others —can allow people to get elected without widespread support.
“[Peel] did nothing wrong, but the voters of that district didn’t want a conservative,” said Eric Fried, a Fort Collins resident who was also part of a campaign to push ranked choice voting a decade ago.
Proponents also argue the method encourages compromise and discourages negative campaigning, because candidates have an incentive to tailor their message to a broader range of voters, in hopes of being someone’s second or third choice.
“It encourages candidates to talk to more people,” Moreland said.
Among those raising concerns about ranked choice voting is the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber opposed the 2011 initiative and has created a webpage with arguments against ranked choice voting, including concerns that the voting method is too complex and could depress turnout, or result in errors and cause ballots to get thrown out.
Ann Hutchinson, the chamber’s president, said the organization hasn’t taken an official position against the bill.
“It will be important for us to consider the context, final design and business community perspective before taking a position,” Hutchinson said in an email.
Some council members have also raised practical concerns, such as the cost of election software and how to educate voters ahead of an election.
For example, the city of Boulder, which holds elections in conjunction with the county, is debating how to format ballots to avoid confusing voters. Because Boulder voters will use ranked choice voting only in the city’s mayoral race, that section of the ballot will look different from the rest.
“We still have to make sure they (voters) understand how this works. Do you include it in the main ballot? Do you give voters a second card to keep it from being confusing?” said Elesha Johnson, Boulder’s city clerk.
This is not the first time Fort Collins voters have had this debate. In 2011, 61% of voters rejected a ballot measure to implement ranked choice voting.
Fried argues growing public awareness – and a more organized campaign this year – will give them a much better chance this year compared to a decade ago.
“People didn’t know what it was,” Fried said.
Still rare, but growing in popularity
Ranked choice voting isn’t common in the United States, but it’s gaining traction.
More than 20 U.S. cities and towns use the voting method in local elections, according to FairVote, including New York City and Oakland and San Francisco in California. In 2020, Maine became the first state to use ranked choice voting for a general presidential election. In Utah, 23 cities used the alternative voting method in the 2021 election, part of an experiment that advocates hope will result in more widespread adoption.
The campaign in Fort Collins comes as the city of Boulder and city and county of Broomfield will switch to ranked choice voting in 2023. In Boulder, only the mayor will be elected with the novel method, while voters in Broomfield will vote that way for all municipal elections.
The mountain towns of Telluride and Basalt currently use the method in some municipal elections. Carbondale adopted ranked choice voting in 2002, but has yet to use it in an election.
More towns and cities could follow suit after Colorado lawmakers passed a law last year requiring the Secretary of State’s Office to adopt standards to make it easier and less costly to make the transition.
The law requires the Secretary of State to create rules and standards for using ranked choice voting with state-certified election software and create a process that can audit elections using the new voting method.
Although the measure was approved by lawmakers last year, funding for the Secretary of State to implement the bill has yet to be finalized. The Joint Budget Committee, a panel of legislative budget writers, will discuss those costs at a hearing Monday.