In Fort Collins, voters are considering electoral reforms this fall. Ballot measure 2A would raise City Council compensation, 2B would shift city elections from April to November, and 2C would implement ranked choice voting for local elections.
The U.S. has seen heightened polarization and partisanship since the 1990s, and survey data demonstrates that Americans aren’t satisfied with our institutions, parties, or politics. We’ve also seen the share of unaffiliated and independent voters (plus voters seeking third-party alternatives) grow to a multi-decade high. Political, economic, and social instability often lead to electoral reform movements, such as the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century, and we appear to be in one of those moments now.
Well, what’s on the ballot?
2A – City Compensation
This measure would increase council pay from $10,712 a year to $33,600. Proponents of these changes (including former elected officials) contend that the role requires at least 20 hours of work per week, which is why the proposed salary is set to 50% of area median income. 2A would also allow council members to opt-in to the City’s employee health benefits program, which they currently cannot. Compensating City Council at a more appropriate level could lead to a wider diversity of candidates, increasing equity in representation. No formal opposition has emerged to 2A this fall.2B – Shifting Elections to November
2B – Shifting Elections to November
2B would shift elections in Fort Collins from the first week of April to the first week of November, in odd numbered years. Research has demonstrated that November elections have higher turnout than April municipal elections, although that research also demonstrates that November elections in even numbered years have significantly higher turnout than November elections in odd numbered years.
Larimer County turnout was 89.2% in 2020 and 78.4% in 2018. Fort Collins turnout was 37.5% in April 2021. One reason it makes sense to consolidate our elections is to increase turnout and alleviate voter fatigue. Boulder, LaSalle, Crested Butte, Timnath, and others are asking voters to change their municipal election to the first November in even numbered years, so we’ll get to compare those reforms, and turnout rates, if they pass.2C – Ranked Choice Voting
2C – Ranked Choice Voting
There are multiple forms of ranked choice voting, or RCV, but generally it means that voters get to rank multiple candidates, unlike in plurality voting when voters get to vote for a single candidate. Different forms of RCV exist because of variations like assembly size and how parties’ structure primary systems.
In Fort Collins, the form of RCV under consideration is called Alternative Vote because these are single-seat (non-partisan) council districts. It is the only municipal ballot measure this fall with an active opposition group.
More than 50 governments throughout the U.S. — states, counties, and cities — have adopted RCV in the last decade. And many other democracies such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and Israel use RCV to elect their legislatures, which are distinctly more multi-party than our system here in the U.S.
Advocates of RCV argue that it will increase participation in elections, lead to more candidates, and lends itself to enhanced political collaboration. Opponents of the measure say it will confuse voters, many of whom might not rank all the candidates and thus “spoiling” their ballot. Scholars have looked at approval rates for RCV, and younger voters, voters who lean towards the Democratic Party, and unaffiliated voters all appear to support it enthusiastically.
We’ve learned from congressional races in places like Maine and Alaska, and municipal elections in Santa Fe, New York and elsewhere that people generally like RCV when using it. We know that voter education is critical, and doing that well requires funding.
In general, there is a need for a larger marketplace for ideas in our electoral systems, and potentially more candidates and parties. RCV eliminates the “spoiler effect” that we see with third party candidates in the current system, which will incentivize more people to run. Since the Constitution delegates the time, place and manner of elections to the state and local governments, then reforms that lead to national shifts will need to come from the local level, and citizens in Fort Collins are looking to lead on this issue.
I think that’s because Fort Collins has a deep history of innovation and thought leadership in municipal governance. This goes back to the establishment of the council-manager form of government over a century ago, citizens purchasing the local electrical utility in the 1930s, and even the undergrounding of our utilities in the 1960s and 1970s. Those were future-proofing reforms, and we’re now faced with three proposals to future-proof our local electoral systems, building off the reforms we’ve seen in Colorado with mail-at-home ballots and independent redistricting.
Please make sure to explore all the measures on the ballot this year, and make sure to vote by Nov. 8.
Samuel Houghteling, of Fort Collins, is director of the CSU Straayer Center for Public Service Leadership. The views expressed in this column are his, and not those of Colorado State University.
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