Ranked voting will be on the ballot in Fort Collins

(image: Rocket Banner)

Advocates from across the political spectrum officially launched a campaign this week to radically change how Fort Collins elects city officials.

Joined by multiple Colorado legislators and city council members, Fort Collins Ranked Voting hosted their campaign kickoff event at Avogado’s Number in Fort Collins after garnering enough signatures to put the alternative voting method on the city’s April ballot.

If approved, Fort Collins would replace the traditional plurality voting system with a method that ensures winners receive majority support. For the 2013 municipal elections the mayoral and city council races would use ranked choice voting, also called instant runoff voting, that allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot according to their personal preference.

Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, an advisor to the group, said the system is simple. Kefalas explained 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 just like choosing your favorite ice cream,” Kefalas said.

During his speech Kefalas asked a four-year-old girl in the front row to name her first, second and third favorite ice cream flavor. The young girl quickly answered strawberry, blueberry and lemon.

“If a four-year-old can do it, than I don’t think it’s so complicated,” Kefalas pronounced over resounding applause.

Seth Anthony, a member of Fort Collins Ranked voting since 2008, said the toughest hurdle in passing the measure is for voters to understand the system’s simplicity. Anthony said while collecting petition signatures he turned many skeptics into supporters by merely explaining how ranked voting worked.

“Once people understand the process they are usually 100 percent on board,” Anthony said.

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said RCV is very logical. He said it would open up the whole political process to a much broader dialogue because voters could vote with their heart first and then for a more electable candidate second.

“I can foresee a time when we look back on today and say, ‘wow what was the big controversy all about?’” Fischer said. “It makes sense to ensure we have a majority rule in our elections. I can even foresee a time when we can do away with primaries. If we have ranked choice voting, why do we need a primary?”

Kefalas said RCV eliminates the “spoiler effect.” Currently third party candidates can spilt the vote and help elect the candidate ideologically opposite from himself or herself. Kefalas also said campaign dollars make less of an impact during RCV races because voters are more likely to take a chance on a candidate they believe is right for the job, rather than simply vote for the candidate with the most television spots.

It looks as if the controversy has only begun. Letters to the editor have appeared in The Coloradoan both for and against the measure.

Former Larimer County Commissioner and former Fort Collins City Council member John Clarke outlined his opposition to RCV in a Jan. 28 Coloradoan column. Clarke wrote that the process is too complicated and would discourage voter turnout. He is also concerned about relying on computers to tally voter preferences.

“I never liked the idea of trusting my vote to cyber software,” wrote Clarke.

Anthony said many companies are already offering machines that can tabulate RCV results. Fort Collins rents voting machines, so he said the city would only need to choose a different company capable of handling RCV elections. Anthony said the transition will run smoothly because Fort Collins uses an all mail-in ballot system where ballots are counted in a central location. The city would only have to change one counting machine as opposed to machines in numerous precincts.

Fort Collins City Clerk Wanda Krajicek said her office has not studied how RCV would affect the city and is awaiting the results before officially looking into how RCV would work.

“If the voters want it we will do everything in our power to make it happen,” Krajicek said.

Kefalas is a long time supporter of alternative voting methods. In 2007 he sponsored legislation that set up the voter choice task force to study various voting options. The following year he sponsored a bill that granted local jurisdictions greater flexibility in their election process, which allows municipalities like Fort Collins to make the switch to RCV.

The voter choice task force demonstrated that RCV could be instituted for many statewide races. According to Kefalas, Colorado’s constitution limits any change to some statewide elections like the governor’s race, but he said nothing stands in the way of state senatorial, state house or even congressional races from transitioning to RCV. Kefalas hopes Fort Collins will act as a proving ground for alternative methods.

“My goal is that if we can show success at the local level then maybe people would be willing to make the switch on other levels as well,” Kefalas said. “It’s getting crazy in Denver lately. Everyone is worried about who is on top and who is ahead. This system allows for a greater flow of ideas and forces the two major parties to concentrate on issues rather than partisan bickering.”

Colorado Democratic chair Pat Waak said changing any statewide race to an alternative method would be a very difficult proposition. The Democratic Party has not taken an official stance on the issue, but in general Waak said she has some problems with ranked choice elections.

If approved, Fort Collins would join Aspen, Basalt and Telluride in enacting RCV. Basalt adopted the alternative method in 2002 for mayoral races with at least three candidates, but such a situation has yet to arise. Telluride passed an ordinance in 2008 instituting RCV for the town’s next three mayoral races starting in 2011.

Aspen is the only Colorado municipality to have actually conducted an election using RCV. In September 2007, the Aspen City Council adopted an ordinance requiring instant runoff voting for Mayor and Council members as well as a requirement that council members be elected by majority vote. In November of that same year Aspen voters approved a charter amendment, which paved the way for the city’s May 5, 2009 regular municipal election conducted using IRV. In November 2010, Aspen voters subsequently repealed the amendment and returned to traditional methods after only using IRV one time.

This week, as a requirement of Kefalas’ bill granting local jurisdictions greater flexibility in their election process, the Secretary of State published a study addressing the many questions surrounding alternative voting methods. The report includes progress updates from counties and municipalities across Colorado who instituted RCV as well as feedback from stakeholders and details on how they transitioned to alternative methods. The report queried interested parties to gain insight into Aspen’s 2009 election and posted the comments on the SOS Web site. The report does not suggest employing RCV elections in Colorado.

“Considering the written comments received and the immediate repeal of instant runoff voting in Aspen, implementing ranked voting methods may not be a viable option for Colorado elections,” the report stated.

The report does state that the City of Aspen has verbally expressed that their 2009 election felt like a success. It states that conflicting viewpoints make assessing Aspen’s election difficult. It said the city employed a tabulation methodology that has never been used in the U.S. before. The city employed what was dubbed the True method, named after its creator Jim True of the Aspen City Attorney’s office.

The reports cites Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, the leading non-profit and non partisan advocacy group for alternative voting methods, as saying True’s method is defensible, but that Richie would have suggested a different way of counting votes for multi-seat elections. The report also states that depending on selection of any specific tabulation algorithm, the same set of ballots could have resulted in multiple differing winners.

Co-Chair of Fort Collins Ranked Voting Eric Fried said he was disappointed but not surprised by the SOS report.

“It is indicative of an institutional bias against change,” Fried said. “They make passing reference to Rob Richie’s comments, but every other comment they reference is negative and gave no recognition to any problems with our current electoral system.”

In response to claims that different ways of counting votes leads to different results, Fried agreed. He said RCV is supposed to give a different result than traditional methods, but Fried said he believes that RCV produces the fairest result. Fried also said he understands why Aspen used its own tabulation method, but said their method may have been too complicated.

“Here in Fort Collins we do not plan on re-inventing the wheel,” Fried said. “We will use a much simpler RCV formula and will not implement a multi-seat election.”

A decade ago no city in the country used RCV, but 16 municipalities and counties have adopted the alternative method in California, North Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington. Including Aspen, two cities and a county have since returned to traditional methods — Burlington, VT., and Pierce County, WA.

Also in attendance at Sunday’s event was Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Fort Collins City Council member Ben Manvel, District 1.

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