Move under way to change how votes are tabulated

By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A diverse group of election advocates want to change the way Fort Collins elects city officials.

Fort Collins Ranked Voting members are circulating petitions to replace the traditional plurality voting system with a method that ensures winners receive majority support. The group stretches across the political spectrum with a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, two Green Party members and an unaffiliated voter leading the charge.

They’re hoping to establish ranked choice voting (RCV), also called instant runoff voting, that allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot according to their personal preference. For races involving multiple contenders, voters would rank candidates — first choice, second choice, third choice.

Eric Fried, an organizer for Fort Collins Ranked Voting, explains that if any candidate receives the majority of first place votes, they win. If no candidate receives a majority, the votes for the last place candidate are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to each voter’s preference. The process repeats until one candidate holds a simple majority.

“It's important to realize you still only get one vote,” Fried said. “Just instead of your vote being thrown out it is reallocated if your candidate loses.”

Fried, 50, used the current governor’s race as an example. He said a supporter of Republican nominee Dan Maes could list Maes as their top choice and American Constitutional Party nominee Tom Tancredo second. If no candidate received a majority of first place votes and Maes garnered the least amount of first place votes then the voter’s second choice, Tancredo, would be the recipient.

Seth Anthony, 27, representing the Associated Students of Colorado State University, said RCV eliminates the “spoiler effect.” Currently, the conservative vote is spilt between Maes and Tancredo, which will most likely give Democrat John Hickenlooper an easy victory. Anthony questioned why Hickenlooper should win the governorship if a majority of Colorado’s voters support a conservative candidate.

“The third party candidate could get on the ballot and spilt the vote for the candidate ideologically opposite from himself or herself,” said unaffiliated voter Wanda Mayberry, 76. “This way I can actually vote for the person I really want and maybe I have a second or third choice of somebody more electable.”

State GOP Chair Dick Wadhams said the idea is “absurd.” Wadhams said he believes that the person who garners the most votes wins.

“This is just an example of a bunch of do-gooders having too much time on their hands thinking of things that ‘improve the system,’” Wadhams said. “These self described reformers with these reforms almost always make the system worse than what it was.”

State Democratic Chair Pat Waak declined to comment and referred questions to Larimer County Democratic Chair William Russell. Russell said he isn’t crazy about RCV because it is an effort to promote third party candidates.

Both Colorado legislators from Fort Collins disagree. Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, support ranked voting because of its ability to bring new voices into the political process.

Kefalas introduced legislation in 2007 that set up an alternative voting task force to study various voting methods including RCV. He then sponsored a bill the following year that granted local jurisdictions greater flexibility in their election process.

“It is fundamentally better for our democracy,” said Kefalas, who serves as an informal consultant to Fort Collins Ranked Voting. “It allows for a greater exchange of ideas and forces the two major parties to pay attention to the issues that are out there.”

Supporter Nancy York, 72, said RCV would have been especially useful in the 1999 Fort Collins mayoral election featuring six candidates. She said Ray Martinez won with only 29 percent of the vote.

“We will never know who the majority of voters favored in that election,” York said.

Ranked voting and election reform is central to Colorado’s Green Party. State Green Party Co-Chair Tanya Ishikawa hopes RCV will boost Green registration numbers, as liberal voters would have free reign to choose candidates without fear of accidentally electing conservative candidates.

FairVote, a national organization striving to represent “every vote and every voice,” is the main researcher and advocate for RCV in the U.S. FairVote’s Executive Director Rob Richie said the alternative voting method does more than guarantee a majority winner and eliminate the spoiler effect.

Richie pointed out that money didn’t factor into several RCV elections where the candidate with the lowest fundraising totals won the election. He also noted that negative campaigning takes a significant nosedive during RCV campaigns.

The reason is because negative ads have more of a tendency to backfire on the candidate disseminating attacks in RCV elections. Why would supporters of candidate A choose candidate B as their second choice if candidate B was attacking candidate A, asked Richie.

“In a ranked choice election you need to not only be good at getting first choices, but also good at getting second choices,” Richie said.

Organizers have 60 days to garner 2,517 signatures from registered city voters. If they are successful, the City Council must adopt the new system or put the measure on the city’s April ballot. Advocates said they would rather see the new rules put to a popular vote.

If approved, Fort Collins would join Aspen, Basalt and Telluride to become the fourth Colorado municipality to enact RCV. However, this November the city of Aspen will decide on whether to keep RCV after utilizing the new system for only one election cycle. Basalt approved ranked voting for mayoral elections in 2002, but has yet to have an election with more than two candidates and Telluride will use the system for the first time in 2011.

Ishikawa said the state’s Green Party plans to campaign heavily in support of RCV throughout Fort Collins. The party played an integral part in Telluride’s switch to RCV. The mountain town’s mayor and sheriff are both Green Party members and San Miguel County, which encompasses Telluride, boasts the state’s largest Green Party registration.

Aspen mayoral candidate turned election reform advocate Marilyn Marks is a staunch opponent of RCV. She ran in Aspen’s only RCV election in the spring of 2009.

Her main gripe is voter confusion surrounding the entire process. She said only highly trained professionals or complex computers could determine a ranked choice winner leading to decreased voter confidence in the democratic process.

“If you don’t have an election that your first grade class can count then its not a transparent election,” Marks said.

She said the alternative voting method was sold to Aspen’s voters as a way to eliminate the need for traditional run off elections, thus saving time and money, while producing the same result as traditional methods. Marks asserted RCV can produce drastically different results depending on how the ballots are tabulated.

Marks tabulated the 2009 Aspen city council race using four different RCV tabulation methods. Each method eliminates and reallocates votes differently producing four different results.

A decade ago no city in the country used RCV, but since then 16 cities and counties have adopted the alternative method in California, North Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington. Two of the 16 cities that adopted RCV have since returned to traditional methods — Burlington, Vt., and Pierce County, Wash.

San Francisco has used RCV since November 2004 and Minneapolis administered its first RCV election in 2009. This November the largest RCV election in U.S. history will take place in North Carolina for a 13-candidate statewide judicial race.

Internationally, RCV is used in Ireland and Australia’s national elections and England is expected to hold a national referendum in 2011 for electing the House of Commons through RCV.

“We’re starting to see a movement towards RCV in the English-speaking world and I think the U.S. is going to be a part of that more and more,” Richie said.

National Association of County Recorders President Jack Cunningham said his organization does not have an official position on the matter, but will discuss RCV at their meeting in Chicago next month. Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado secretary of state, said their office is currently studying RCV and will report to the Legislature next session.

Fort Collins City Clerk Wanda Krajicek said she doesn’t have enough information to say how ranked voting would work in Fort Collins, but said it would make the elections process “significantly more complicated” and possibly more expensive.

Anthony said Fort Collins already employs an all mail-in ballot system that would give voters more time to adjust to a new system and keep expenses down. Richie agreed. He said that Fort Collins would only have to change one counting machine as opposed to machines in numerous precincts.

RCV’s next obstacle is overcoming a nationwide infrastructure built around traditional voting methods, Richie said. FairVote has worked to help administrators work through implementation issues to ensure vote counting is done accurately.

“It’s that transition from here to there that is what we’re well under way in doing,” Richie said. “That is a concern that I take seriously and something we are working through.”

Adams County Clerk and President of the Colorado County Clerks Association Karen Long said switching to a statewide RCV system would require drastically different voting equipment costing the state millions of dollars.

“Elections are a pretty fragile environment and you can’t just assume that because you want to change the method of voting and tabulating the results that the equipment can just accommodate that,” Long said. “You can’t just change overnight the way we count.”

Fort Collins Ranked Voting advocates said their biggest hurdle for the upcoming weeks is educating voters as to how the new system would work. They said the timing couldn’t be better for garnering signatures due to an active political season where many voters are becoming increasingly involved. Their long-term goal: spread ranked voting to the state and national level.

“We’re hoping people look at Fort Collins and go ‘oh, that’s a great idea, let’s do that,’” Fried said.

Jimy@coloradostatesman.com