Denver mayor election is a perfect case study for ranked choice voting

There’s a strong likelihood that your vote won’t affect the outcome of the Denver’s mayoral race on April 4.

With 17 candidates vying for this role, no candidate will receive a majority of the vote. The top two vote-getters will advance to a costly and divisive runoff on June 6. A recent poll reported by Axios showed the top two candidates merely receiving 7.6% and 5.8% support, respectively, with 60% of voters undecided.

As a result, as many as 80% of Denver voters — because their preferred candidate won’t make the runoff — will be disenfranchised. Some will become disaffected and less likely to vote in the run-off.

Ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff, is gaining traction nationally and should be implemented in future city elections.

RCV allows voters to vote for multiple candidates in order of their preference, marking a first, second, and third choice. Ranked choice voting is counted in rounds. If a candidate has a majority on the first ballot, they win.  If they don’t, the candidate who did the worst is eliminated, and their votes are instantly distributed to whoever those voters ranked as their second choice in the second round. The process continues until there is a candidate who has received the majority of votes. Data shows that in all RCV elections since 2004, 73% of ballots ranked the winning candidate in their top three.

RCV provides more voter choice, often results in more positive campaigning, and ultimately delivers the majority’s decision. Candidates are incentivized to appeal more broadly to voters as they also position themselves to be a second or third choice.  Avoiding a time-consuming runoff would also save Denver millions in a special election for one race.

Colorado passed a law making it easier for cities to opt-in to RCV voting. RCV is used in  Boulder, Broomfield, Carbondale, Telluride, and most recently, Fort Collins, where voters adopted RCV for city elections with 58% of the vote.

Virginia Republicans used RCV to nominate their winning gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, and then extended RCV to choose their nominees in three congressional districts. Eighty-four percent of Republican primary voters in 2022 said the RCV congressional campaign was positive, compared to 59% of voters in a traditional campaign.

Alaska became the second state to adopt RCV statewide, and in their first use, 85% of Alaskans reported RCV to be simple and successful.

Colorado should become the 7th state to use RCV for our presidential primary too. State Senator Jeff Bridges, a Democrat, is exploring this and other possibilities. Democratic and Republican primaries award delegates proportionately among candidates that cross a certain threshold, and some contests are “winner-take-all.”

One of the most significant problems in presidential primaries is the number of ballots that are deemed wasted because of candidates who drop out of the race before a state’s primary or don’t reach a viability threshold to earn delegates. Three million people cast ballots for candidates who had already dropped out in the 2020 Democratic presidential election before the primary day, and 5 million voters cast their ballot for a candidate who fell below the delegate threshold in their state. Candidates can also earn a disproportionately higher proportion of delegates, especially so, in winner-take-all primaries. Under RCV, those voters’ second and third-choice candidates could still receive support and votes.

Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, has been working to advance RCV for presidential primaries. He told me, “RCV in presidential primaries combines the virtues of the old convention rules, where parties sought to identify unifying nominees, with the modern system that rightly involves so many more voters. In many ways, RCV reflects a modern caucus realignment, as more voters are engaged and able to vote in secret ballots and re-align without having to appear in person.“

And, here’s another nugget to consider.

Republicans know former President Donald Trump is tainted by the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but given the current primary structure, they may be hard-pressed to prevent his nomination. Trump’s base has slipped to 31%, and he has polled poorly in some head-to-head race head-to-head race with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. However, with so many possible candidates, Trump is still in the best position to win the nomination. As he said, “the more, the merrier,” recognizing that splitting the vote of moderate and more traditional conservative Republicans will serve his interests.

In 2016, Republicans split the vote in early primary states, allowing Trump to advance with less than the majority support. In 2024, as more candidates enter the race and ultimately drop out, they dilute each other and help Trump secure the nomination again. Once again, the Republican nominee will likely be determined by a plurality of votes and not a majority.

Amber McReynolds, national election expert and former Denver elections director, said it best,  “we should be striving for systems that ensure fair representation for all. When there are elections — from the mayor to president — with a large number of candidates, ranked-choice voting is a solution to ensure all votes are counted, and all voices are heard.”

Doug Friednash grew up in Denver and is a partner with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. He is the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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