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A close-up shot of a ballot drop off box
A collection box stands outside the Denver Elections Division for the city's election Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in downtown Denver. The 2023 municipal general election ballot consists of races for various local offices including mayor, which has drawn 16 candidates to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock, city council, clerk and recorder and auditor as well as three local ballot measures. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver elections could look a lot different in the future after another low-turnout contest dominated by big money. 

That’s especially true given there will soon be six new members of Denver’s City Council.

Some are hoping to see Denver’s municipal elections move to November in odd years to coincide with school board contests and statewide ballot measures. Others want ranked choice voting to replace the city’s runoffs. Tweaks to Denver’s public financing program, the Fair Elections Fund, could also be on the horizon. 

“I will have those conversations” about potential election changes, Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez told The Colorado Sun. 

Turnout in Denver’s June 6 runoff election among active, registered voters was about 37%, down from nearly 39% in the April municipal election and less than the nearly 41% turnout in the city’s 2019 runoff.

Both incoming Mayor Mike Johnston and his opponent, former metro Denver Chamber CEO Kelly Brough, voiced support for moving Denver’s election to November in odd years in an attempt to increase turnout.

However, Lopez said that change would make holding a runoff difficult. 

State and federal laws require that ballots to military and overseas residents be sent 45 days before an election. A November municipal election could push a runoff into the holiday season. That time requirement is part of the reason Denver’s City Council decided in 2021 to move the city’s general election up to April from May this cycle, prompting the runoff to be held in early June. 

At the time, the council didn’t consider an option presented by Lopez to move the city toward a ranked choice voting system. 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. 

Lopez said he anticipates renewed conversations about how the city’s elections work. “Those are things for the new incoming council and the mayor to consider,” he said.

The general and runoff elections this year each cost $2 million.

Linda Templin, executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, said she hopes the new council will adopt the new voting system. She said incoming Councilman Darrell Watson has agreed to advocate for the proposal. 

The system of ranking candidates gives voters more choices, Templin said, noting that “55% of the people who voted in the mayoral race weren’t voting for one of the candidates who made the top two runoff.”

Broomfield and Boulder will use ranked choice voting in its municipal elections in the fall, joining Basalt. Fort Collins will adopt the system in 2025.

“We’re going to see a very different campaign style,” Templin said. “Because they have to run on the issues and they have to be more diplomatic. They have to differentiate, not disparage. That puts the voters in a more powerful position, because they’re getting better information.” 

But Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, elected to a third and final term in April, said he’ll continue to oppose ranked choice voting, calling it “the flavor of the month.” 

“It’s the shiny new object,” he said.

Flynn said he prefers the current runoff system, in which the top two vote-getters in the municipal election advance to a runoff if neither receives more than 50% of the vote. 

Incoming City Councilwoman Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez said she’ll want more information about ranked choice voting before deciding whether to support adopting the system in Denver, although as a state legislator she supported a bill allowing it in municipal elections.

“One of the questions that I’ve had is how does it actually play out for candidates of color specifically,” she said. “We don’t know. And I think there is some worry of what that might look like.”

Denver elects or reelects its entire City Council and mayor every four years, while many cities have staggered terms with elections every two years. Lopez, who served on City Council for 12 years, said he personally prefers the idea of staggered terms. 

“I think you lose a lot of institutional knowledge when you do not have staggered terms,” he said.

But Flynn said he objects to that because turnout would be lower in years when the mayor isn’t up for election. And he said moving the election to November would mean the previous council would be setting the next year’s budget that would govern the next council and mayor.

“I’m not looking for the cheapest way to elect a mayor,” he said. “I’m looking for the best way.” 

Campaign finance will get some tweaks

Lopez said he thought Denver’s Fair Elections Fund, a program to match small campaign donations to candidates, was successful because the taxpayer matching money enabled more candidates to participate in the election.

The fund’s purpose was to encourage candidates to raise small donations, with every donation of $50 or less matched nine times.

“I feel like the Fair Elections Fund brought more regular candidates to the table,” he said.

Still, the candidates who raised the most money, including from the Fair Elections Fund, mostly won their contests. And spending by outside groups was exponentially higher than four years ago.

Owen Perkins is president of CleanSlateNow Action, which advocated for the fund approved by voters in 2018 and implemented for the first time this year. He said the group will want to make some adjustments to the fund but doesn’t have specifics yet. “From the start, we anticipated proposing changes in the future,” Perkins said.

He agreed that the fund encouraged more people to run, and was especially impactful in City Council contests. 

“When you look beyond the mayoral race, I do think you’ll see a big impact on people feeling like they can be candidates,” Perkins said. “And that’s just the winners. I think there were really good candidates who didn’t win, who I do think changed the conversation.”

Perkins said he’d like to see a way to limit independent spending, which topped $6.2 million in the mayoral race this year, but acknowledged the federal court rulings prevent limiting that money.

Mario Nicolais, a campaign finance lawyer and Colorado Sun columnist, noted that public financing is separate from outside spending. 

“Public financing was never meant to get money out of politics,” Nicolais said. “What it was meant to do was give money to candidates who otherwise maybe couldn’t have got their message out.”

He said he’d like to see more consequences for campaign finance violations.

“As someone who has litigated a couple of things in Denver … if you break the rules, it’s gonna be really hard to catch you, and it’ll be hard for anyone to prove anything,” he said.

Lopez said his goal as chief elections official is to make sure the process is transparent and accessible.

“My goal is transparency,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had a Fair Elections Fund. This is the first launch of a very successful and very revolutionary system. We can only build upon that.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...