Approval, Ranked-Choice Elections Could Be on November Ballot
Several options to change Denver’s elections process could be decided by voters in November—to increase the time between the municipal election and a runoff or do away with runoffs altogether.
In 2019, elections officials in Denver were close to violating state law and the city charter as it was difficult to distribute ballots to military members overseas, and there was little time between the municipal election and the runoff.
In North Denver’s District 1, there were only two candidates in 2015 and therefore no runoff. But in 2019, seven candidates ran with no one obtaining the majority vote in the municipal election, forcing a runoff that current Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval won against Michael Somma.
To avoid these possible disasters, the City Clerk’s Office and Denver’s Charter Review Committee have hosted meetings and discussed ways to change the election process since August.
The next coordinated election for state and federal offices is Nov. 2, when a ballot initiative could be decided.
There are three methods of voting to be considered by the Denver City Clerk’s office, which is slated to make recommendations to the City Council by the end of April.
The City Council has until the end of August to finalize a ballot measure.
Rather than choose just one candidate, voters would rank each of the candidates by order of preference.
If there were five candidates in an election, voters could rank each of them 1 through 5, and if no single candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated.
People who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there is a majority winner.
Emma Donahue, the political director for Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, said the method of voting her organization advocates makes elections “more civil” because candidates must focus on obtaining broad support from voters rather than their bases.
Additionally, changing to the ranked-choice method would not cost the city much compared to the overall cost of elections.
“A lot of the value we see for ranked-choice voting is it eliminates the runoff, which in Denver it costs $1 million and it would eliminate that cost right there,” Donahue said. “Also, runoff elections generally have a lower turnout.”
The last primary election was held May 7, 2019, and the runoff election was held June 4, 2019, giving the city less than a month to issue the run-off ballots.
According to surveys Ranked-Choice Voting for Colorado conducted, “people are generally satisfied with the outcome,” Donahue said.
Alaska recently adopted ranked-choice voting and will use it in the next state and federal primary elections. Several other states have adopted using RCV for primary elections, and the towns of Telluride and Basalt already use it to elect their mayor.
“I think there’s always a chance of people not getting the candidate they want, but RCV prevents a lot of that spoiler effect,” Donahue said. “I think RCV can even this out so that people are happier with the outcome.”
This is the most common method of elections—one person, one vote.
Rather than change the way in which Denver votes for elected officials, the City Clerk’s Office could recommend just changing the municipal election to November, which would fall in line with federal and statewide voting periods.
The clerk’s office said moving the city’s election to November could save $2 million by combining the costs of the elections, but a method of voting could also be decided with that decision because the plurality option currently doesn’t provide more time for a run-off.
The city could also just increase the time between the primary election and a runoff, in an increment of no more than 30 additional days between elections.
Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who is part of the city’s Charter Review Committee, has advocated for keeping plurality voting in exchange for a longer timeline to distribute ballots.
“I think we have an ideal system; it’s just the federal requirement, since we adopted The Uniformed And Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, that’s what created the conflict,” Flynn told The Denver North Star.
Flynn has criticized ranked-choice voting by likening it to the Academy Awards selection for best picture (mostly irked by Birdman’s 2014 win). He said when the first choice is so fractured among a large field of candidates, it can lead to voters ending up with a person who was not approved by the majority.
Flynn also noted the city once used a form of rank-choice voting and rejected it, though Bucklin voting, the ranked-choice system Denver used in the early 20th century, is different from the version of rank choice voting being advocated for today.
He’s not a fan of approval voting, either.
“Approval voting is so very new, and it strikes me … as the person with most likes on Facebook gets to be mayor, and that’s not how I want to pick leadership,” Flynn said.
Approval voting is different from both plurality and ranked-choice in that voters could select all the candidates they see fit for office and not select the ones they don’t. Instead of ranking candidates, the person who gets the most votes of confidence would be the winner. This version could also eliminate the need for a runoff, but a runoff may still be needed in some instances.
Blake Huber, the president of the Approval Voting Party of Colorado, said the method his party advocates takes out the complexity of ranked-choice and provides a better representation of voters’ interests.
“When you approve candidates, you’re looking at your ballot saying ‘I don’t like these people’ or ‘I like these,’ and then you don’t have to worry about ranking one of your candidates second,” Huber said. “There’s just too much complication in (ranked-choice voting). I’m a simple guy.”
Huber said he’s not opposed to ranked-choice voting in that it eliminates the runoff, but he’s more in favor of approval voting.
Huber referenced an election in St. Louis in which there were three Black candidates and one white candidate in an area that is dominated by Black voters. Huber said the plurality voting system that was used divided votes among the Black caucus in the area, which led to the white candidate winning the primary election.
Additionally, if approval voting is not part of the recommendations, advocates for the voting method have already met with Denver city officials to initiate their own competing measure for the 2021 election.
Note: In the interest of transparency, Emma Donahue, political director for Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, who is quoted in this article, is the fiancé of David Sabados, the owner of The Denver North Star. Mr. Sabados was not involved in any interviews or content creation for this article. Eric Heinz is a freelance journalist who wrote this article independently.