Let’s begin by stipulating that there’s probably no way to escape the steaming pile of awfulness we’re in politically with a mere change in election ballots. Hateful rhetoric, lies, rampant voter suppression measures and the racist monstrosity known as the Electoral College are not going to be neutralized by anything as simple as a new form.
Still, the effort to bring ranked-choice voting to cities across Colorado is, if not a giant leap for mankind, at least an appealing step in the right direction.
The latest city to consider ranked-choice voting is Fort Collins. If the city council gives its approval, voters there will decide a ballot measure on the issue in November and move to ranked-choice voting going forward.
This method was used in the mayor’s race in Basalt in 2020 and will be used to elect Boulder’s mayor and local officials in Broomfield in 2023.
It has been used in Maine, Alaska and more than 40 other jurisdictions across the country. A recent high-profile race decided by ranked-choice voting was the New York City mayoral election.
The way ranked-choice voting works is simple, despite the handwringing of critics who say we’re too stupid to understand it.
Voters rank candidates on their ballot by their preferences — first, second, third choice and so on. If one candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, that candidate is declared the winner.
If no candidate wins a majority, the ranking system is in play. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the voters who picked the loser have their second-choice votes applied to that candidate.
If the second choice receives a majority, a winner is declared. If not, the process continues.
Some of the advantages of ranked-choice voting are obvious, like the fact that it eliminates the need for runoff elections. It also prevents the election of a candidate that a majority of voters have rejected.
This happens a lot, particularly in nonpartisan races or when third-party candidates are in the mix.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was elected with only 39% of the vote in 2006. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura got 37% in 1998. Maine Gov. Paul LePage got 38% in 2010.
Ranked-choice voting also allows voters to express their clear preferences without worrying about calculating electability so they don’t waste their votes, which alone is kind of cool.
To picture how that works, let’s imagine a Republican primary race for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat in which the candidates are Doug Lamborn, Lauren Boebert, Ken Buck and Tina Peters.
C’mon, that’s not even a little far-fetched.
After a bruising campaign season, a minority of voters might passionately support the gun-slinging Boebert and rank her first on their ballot, while a majority rank Peters second, apparently thinking her cop-kicking behavior is more representative of the party’s current zeitgeist. Lamborn and Buck might be eliminated because in this field, they simply aren’t outrageous enough.
The ranked-choice system would give Republicans the chance to convey their fervent admiration for Boebert without the risk of wasting their vote on someone who is so clearly overshadowed by another headline-grabbing crackpot whose star is on a meteoric rise.
But seriously, with Denver’s mayoral election on the horizon, the opportunity for ranked-choice voting could be a game-changer.
Past races have attracted strong candidates, and the 2023 election should be no exception.
Among the names on the long, long list of possibilities are Leslie Herod, Kelly Brough, Robin Kneich, Alec Garnett, Tami Door, Candi CdeBaca, Mike Ferrufino, Mike Johnston, Debbie Ortega, Alex Valdez … the list goes on.
It’s not hard to imagine, after months of campaigning that the race would come down to three or four strong candidates, none of whom is poised to garner a majority of votes in the election.
Instead of prolonging the costly, tedious campaign season and holding a runoff election, ranked-choice voting could settle the matter decisively in one ballot.
Probably the best case for ranked-choice voting, though, is the growing body of evidence in Maine, New York City and Alaska that it discourages the scorched-earth tactics that have become the disgusting norm in so many American elections.
Political consultants have insisted for decades that the reason vicious negative campaigning is so popular is because it works.
For some particularly shameless candidates, that means all they need to do is give their opponents insulting nicknames that stick in the minds of voters, and they’re shoo-ins.
That won’t work, though, if the candidates need a significant percentage of their opponents’ supporters ranking them second to win. Making nice becomes a winning strategy.
In Maine, two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor went so far as to appear in a joint campaign commercial talking about their respect for one another in an appeal for crossover support in the ranked-choice election.
This is not a joke.
I know it’s hard to imagine after all the hideous campaign rhetoric we’ve endured in recent years, but ranked-choice voting makes political campaigns more civil — even if it’s only because it’s in the candidates’ self-interest.
For most of us, that alone is reason to give it a try.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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