Facing the most serious issues in at least a generation, Denver is poised to elect a new mayor for the first time since Michael Hancock was elected to his inaugural term in 2011.
But the race is being met with a collective shrug from voters in the Mile High City.
That’s not altogether unusual. In the last 15 years on average, fewer than 4 in 10 active voters participated in Denver’s spring municipal elections. Denver is not meeting its potential when hundreds of thousands of voters choose to sit out the process of electing their leaders.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years studying, supporting and leading efforts to improve our democracy. At its heart, our democratic republic benefits from participation — and participation soars when we are not driven by partisan extremes and voters feel as though their voices can be heard.
Voter engagement in Denver could easily be increased with three simple steps: raising the bar to qualify for the ballot by increasing the number of signatures needed; moving municipal elections to November, when voters are more conditioned to participate; and, perhaps most importantly, instituting ranked-choice voting to advance leaders who have the support of a majority of voters.
Unlike previous mayoral races, this one will turn on more than debates over snow plows and parking. Denver faces enormous challenges when it comes to addressing homelessness and affordable housing, reducing crime and improving public safety, and re-invigorating downtown to again become a thriving civic center for residents, visitors and businesses alike.
It would be a help to the next mayor if he or she had significant public backing to tackle those challenges and others confronting a city with a $1.6 billion annual budget and a workforce of more than 11,000 people. Instead, Denver might have a mayor elected in the lowest-turnout election in recent history (roughly 10% of the 453,242 ballots mailed to voters had been returned as of March 30). And, given the size of the field (there are 17 names on the ballot), it is likely that the two people who advance to the June runoff each will have been supported by fewer than 20% of the voters who do participate.
This is a serious job, and it demands a serious revisitation of how we engage the public in picking the person who holds it.
Denver has a ridiculously low threshold for candidates to qualify for the mayoral ballot: A paltry 300 signatures.
Running to represent Denver in Congress requires a candidate to collect 1,500 signatures. If an aspiring candidate doesn’t have 20 supporters to go out, talk to voters, and collect something closer to that number of signatures, they shouldn’t be running for mayor of the state’s capital city.
The next step toward improving participation is to move our municipal elections to the fall.
Denver voters routinely demonstrate a willingness to participate in our elections — notably in November of even-numbered years. Since 2014, participation in those elections has ranged from a low of 62% of active voters in last year’s midterm elections to a high of 86.5% in the 2020 presidential election year.
My preference would be to move elections to even-numbered years because turnout is greater than in odd-numbered years. Either way, moving the municipal elections to November — at a time of year when voters are conditioned to participate — would bolster turnout regardless of the year.
For those who say such a move would make elections more expensive and give candidates with deeper financial backing an advantage, I would argue that the cost to reach likely voters — given the much higher turnout — would be significantly less.
And for those who say such a move would make running for office more costly, I would argue that we should be more concerned about enfranchising voters than preserving candidates’ campaign coffers.
Finally, the biggest impediment to participation this year may be the sheer number of candidates, and voters’ difficulty in selecting a single one to support.
That’s where ranked-choice voting comes in.
Sometimes called “instant-runoff” voting, this system allows voters to express support for multiple candidates. The premise is straightforward: voters rank their top candidates in order of preference. If no candidate reaches a 50%+1 majority on first choices, the candidate with majority support emerges based on ranked choices.
This is so simple it makes an NCAA bracket look complicated. And it’s increasingly commonplace. Pew Research has identified more than 260 jurisdictions across the country that have adopted some form of ranked-choice voting to deliver candidates who appeal to a majority of voters. Imagine that: candidates who appeal to a majority of voters – it almost sounds like a democracy!
An added benefit is that it increases interest in the race and eliminates the second, runoff election which is run at taxpayers’ expense.
There is no magic bullet for solving the issues confronting Denver at the moment, but the low turnout in this year’s contest is a signal that the city’s municipal election setup is broken. I believe in Denver residents’ desire to participate in their democracy and create a better city, and these simple steps can help us realize that outcome.
Kent Thiry is the former CEO of DaVita Inc. He has co-chaired successful Colorado citizen ballot initiatives to restore the state’s presidential primary election, open primary elections to unaffiliated voters, and to create independent commissions to draw Colorado’s congressional and legislative voter maps.
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