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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Ranked-choice voting will push candidates to the center

It’s the next logical step for Colorado elections, already a national leader for voter participation

Coloradans are unique, especially when it comes to voting.

Curtis Harrison

We are one of only nine states with more unaffiliated voters than either Democratic voters or Republican voters. In the 2020 election, we had the second-highest turnout of any state, beaten only by Minnesota

Much of this is due to our constant work improving and modernizing our election process. We have been mailing every voter a ballot since 2014, when we became the third state to begin doing so. Since then, five other states have followed our lead after seeing the boost to voter turnout here in Colorado. We have long been a national leader in fair, free, and accessible elections, driving high voter turnout and satisfaction.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It is time for Colorado to take the next step in pro-democracy voting reform: ranked-choice voting. Also known as instant runoff voting, ranked-choice voting is a simple change to the voting process that allows voters to express their voice more completely.

To understand ranked-choice voting, we must first discuss the current plurality-voting system: You vote for one candidate on the ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins. 

There are many issues with this form of voting, but I want to focus on two. First, when there are 3 or more candidates on the ballot, a candidate can win even when most voters support a different candidate. A candidate could win with as litle as a third of the vote, meaning two-thirds of voters chose someone else.

Second, this form of voting creates the “spoiler effect,” where two candidates with similar ideologies can “split” the vote, allowing a candidate with a less supported ideology to win the election. The spoiler effect hurts third-party and independent candidates because voters don’t want to “waste” their vote, or believe that a vote for their favorite candidate might be “a vote for the other side.”

Enter ranked-choice voting.

Instead of selecting one candidate, voters rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference. They don’t have to rank a candidate if they don’t support them.

If nobody gets more than 50% of the first-place votes, the candidate with the least number of first-place votes is eliminated — but their voters aren’t. Instead, those voters have their vote allocated to the next-highest ranking candidate on their respective ballots.

This process is repeated until a candidate emerges with a majority of the vote. It is no more complicated than a runoff election, where the voters have already given their preference for the runoff rounds.

The benefits of ranked-choice voting are numerous. It eliminates the need for a separate runoff election, which saves taxpayer dollars. In Denver, it could save the city a million dollars every runoff election.

With the need for a runoff elminated, ranked-choice voting also allows military and overseas voters to participate in the complete election process instead of only the first round. It eliminates the harmful spoiler effect, which will encourage more independent and third-party candidates to run for office.

Crucially, it also ensures that the winner has the support of the majority of voters. In order to do that, candidates are incentivized toward more positive campaigning, because slandering someone’s first-place choice is a bad way to secure their second-place ranking. This keeps candidates focused on the issues, instead of slinging mud at each other.

The good news? Colorado has already passed legislation that will provide the elections infrastructure for any city that wants to use ranked-choice voting, and the same infrastructure could be used for state and federal elections here in Colorado.

This legislation has made it possible for cities that want to adopt ranked-choice voting to do so. Broomfield, Boulder, Basalt, and Telluride already have adopted ranked-choice voting. Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are both considering citywide referendums on the idea this fall.

Ranked-choice voting has widespread support across the state, in our communities large and small, progressive and conservative, rural and urban, in the mountains and on the plains.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

We are mostly unaffiliated voters, and yet third-party candidates cannot gain traction. Coloradans have demonstrated through their voter registration that they want more options. Ranked-choice voting will give them those options, so that everyone in our state can have a stronger voice.

Colorado is a national leader in improving our democracy. It is time to continue our legacy by adopting ranked-choice voting across the state for local, state, and national elections.

Call your city council, call your state representative, call our governor. Tell your friends and family. Together we can take the next step, and show the rest of the country what democracy looks like in the modern age.


Curtis Harrison lives in Golden.


Note: “Democrat voters” was changed to “Democratic voters” on April 6 at 4:52 p.m.

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We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.