Let’s play a bit of pretend.
Pretend that it is around 11 p.m. on election night this Tuesday, April 4th, or perhaps closer to 8 a.m. the next morning, and the citizens of both Denver and Colorado Springs know whom their next mayor will be.
Pretend that the good people of both cities, the state’s two largest, are spared the nastiness and division of an extended runoff election, six long weeks in the case of Colorado Springs and nine interminable weeks in Denver.
Further, pretend that this could be easily, routinely accomplished through a voting methodology that promotes consensus, penalizes cheap attacks and drives politics toward the center.
What is not to like about all of that? It makes sufficient sense that it is predictably, reliably opposed by many in the political class who thrive on high-volume polarization and line their pockets on endless campaigns.
The system to which I am referring is known as ranked-choice voting.
In it, voters mark their ballot by ranking candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, he or she is elected. If no candidate wins an majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated and his/her second-choice votes are apportioned among the remaining candidates. Such rounds continue until one candidate has an absolute majority.
It may sound complicated, but it is really not. Maine and Alaska use this system broadly. A growing list of cities employ it, including both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and a host of locales across California. And there is the Big Apple, New York City, which utilizes it as well.
In Colorado, cities from Carbondale to Broomfield to Fort Collins have adopted ranked-choice voting for municipal elections. Why not Denver and Colorado Springs?
Votes for the Academy Award for Best Picture are tabulated via such a system. If it is good enough for Oscar, just maybe it could find utility here.
Speaking broadly, ranked-choice voting has the effect of elevating candidates in the broad vicinity of the political center and diminishing those who specialize in arousing passions on one extreme flank or the other. That works for me.
It serves to emphasize commonalities rather than differences. It puts the premium on "who-can-I-live-with" instead of "who-makes-my-heart-sing." Given that all political leaders inevitably disappoint and that the realm is a lousy one for seeking heroes, acceptability is not a bad measure.
This process is not the only electoral innovation designed to haul political discourse and governance in a centrist direction. But that is clearly its effect, to be accented over time with broader use. In this age of toxic schism, I cannot think of a more important pursuit.
Getting very practical with respect to the mayoral elections this week in these two very different cities 70 miles apart, ranked-choice voting, also known as an “instant runoff,” would have had a major impact on the campaigns we have witnessed both places.
There, at the foot of Pikes Peak, 11 candidates are aiming for a spot in the runoff with three seeming to lead the way, former officeholders Sallie Clark and Wayne Williams, and immigrant businessman Yemi Mobolade.
The contest between Clark and Williams, both Republicans who probably don’t differ that much on most questions, disintegrated into a food fight waged with vast monies offered up by warring groups of land developers.
If political mud is your thing, this was low-brow entertainment aplenty.
Though beyond boosting Mobolade’s prospects, even in a city still with a conversative tilt, this battle royale did nothing to enhance either Clark’s or Williams’s opportunity to be a broadly popular mayor backed by a significant consensus if one of them eventually prevails.
Had a ranked-choice system been in place, it is guaranteed that these campaigns would have taken a wholly different course. If Clark and Williams had not been only seeking that all-or-nothing vote but also concerned with the second or third-choice vote or those favoring the other or any contender, they would never have waged a scorched-earth brawl.
A system that provides a disincentive for candidates to go with the time-tested, gutter material? Sign me up for that as well.
Here in Denver, the campaign among 16 remaining candidates, count ‘em, has not been nearly so brutal or no-holds-barred. However, that is surely to come in the two-month runoff. Sadly, I promise you that it will be neither pretty or uplifting.
The instant runoff would solve that by ending this with a single election, saving real money and avoiding the mano a mano combat.
To be sure, ranked-choice voting is not perfect. As the system gains wider usage, it needs to become more transparent as to eliminations and tabulations with each passing round. Moreover, in this technological age, the tallying should be quick and the rounds handled in something close to real time.
The count in the Alaska congressional race in which Mary Peltola bested Sarah Palin, the prototype candidate of intense but limited appeal, took two full weeks. Such delay breeds suspicion and should be unnecessary.
In Denver this week, the top two candidates who qualify for the runoff almost certainly will account for less than half of the vote total between them. 40 percent combined could be the ballpark. This means that 60 percent or more of Denver voters will cast their vote for a candidate not moving forward. An instant runoff would allow their second, third and further preferences to still count and matter.
The situation in Colorado Springs is similar even if the two runoff qualifiers may represent a slightly larger chunk of the total.
Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful springtime of April and May not chock-full of attack ads, disingenuous mailers and non-stop chatter. That would be the case were Colorado’s two premier cities to apply ranked-choice voting and end it all here and now.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann
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