It’s not exactly a secret that our “first across the finish line” election system permitting plurality winners has its downsides. A growing body of political science research attributes the rapidly growing polarization in American politics to this longstanding practice. While certainly a factor, there must be more than this at work since the nation has enjoyed several extended periods of relative partisan peace.
A few states require runoff elections to obtain majority victors. Others, however, are considering structural changes ranging from approval balloting, where each voter indicates every acceptable candidate, to ranked order or ranked choice elections designed to make an “instant runoff” result possible. Australia has relied on this latter system for more than a century together with a few local governments including a pending implementation by the state of Maine.
Perhaps the most radical proponents of electoral reform are those who call for a shift from our congressional to a parliamentary system, where members then select their leadership. The ascent of Boris Johnson as prime minister “across the pond” offers little to inspire confidence in the wisdom of this approach.
Colorado voters’ approval of unaffiliated participation in party primaries raises the question of whether these newly enfranchised voters could force a candidate upon Democrats or Republicans who would never command majority support from the party itself. This change was justified on the grounds that ballots cast by unaffiliated voters would help moderate the drift of our parties towards the right and left ends of the political spectrum. This remains a theory.
In 2018 Republicans experienced the penalty of advancing plurality candidates to the ballot selected by 40% of their most activist partisans. There is evidence the unaffiliated voters who bothered to return ballots were already inclined to lean either left or right. Very few appear to have been asserting their political independence in an effort to moderate either party’s candidate preferences. Yet, the recruitment of John Hickenlooper into the 2020 Colorado Senate race is premised on his alleged appeal as a centrist.
Time still remains for the Colorado legislature to adopt an instant runoff format for the 2020 June 30 primaries once they convene in January. It’s likely this is the single rule change that offers hope for the eleven candidates who entered the Democratic primary before our peripatetic former governor decided he might be well-suited to serve in the U. S. Senate after all. The chances of legislative success are likely slim, but not inconceivable. Democratic legislators will be under heavy pressure to leave well enough alone. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men (as well as their wallets) believe Hick is the cruise missile Chuck Schumer needs to blast Cory Gardner out of his seat.
There is ample reason for Republicans to support a ranked order voting system. While there is reason to suspect any Democrat with a pulse can capture Gardner’s Senate seat, none of the remaining candidates loom as formidably as Hickenlooper. And, over the long run, during a surprising period of enthusiasm when elections are attracting a surfeit of candidates in both parties, Republicans would only benefit from an assurance their candidates enjoy majority support among registered partisans. Beyond that, Republican legislators will almost certainly be required to override a probable veto from the governor.
This idea won’t be taken seriously unless and until the Democratic candidates who choose to remain in the Senate primary lock arms and make a unified demand for support from their colleagues in the legislature. Angela Williams can even carry legislation for them in the Senate. There is good reason to believe John Hickenlooper, who showed so little interest in serving as governor of Colorado that he appointed Donna Lynne as lieutenant governor and his chief operations officer, might struggle to reach 50% support. If he isn’t your first choice, it’s doubtful he will be your second choice.
Requiring additional runoff elections would almost certainly fail because of the costs imposed on county clerks. Rank order voting makes more fiscal sense. It also may be the right thing to approve this change before voters makes a mistake that forces us into a hasty reform. All things being equal, our election system currently favors celebrity and money over policy or experience. There’s something a little dumb about that.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.