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Denver’s runoff election could be its last, as ranked choice voting gains support

Denver's next mayor and city council overwhelmingly support switching to "instant runoffs."
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Posted at 3:20 PM, Jun 06, 2023

DENVER — As Denver's runoff elections come to an end, many candidates and voters hope this runoff could be the last.

On the campaign trail, both candidates for mayor – Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough – said they want to eliminate the process of holding separate general and runoff elections. Instead, they’re supporting a switch to ranked choice voting.

Most of the candidates running for Denver City Council agree with that proposal.

"Ranked choice voting is easy. You just say who you love, who you like and who you can live with,” said Linda Templin, the executive director of Ranked Choice Voting for Colorado, a group advocating for Denver and other Colorado cities to use ranked choice voting.

"This entire process since April that we've been going through here in Denver, we don't have to do it this way. It can be one and done,” Templin said.

Sometimes called “instant runoff” voting, ranked choice does what it sounds like – it lets voters rank their choices. If one candidate doesn’t win more than half of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters whose first pick lost get their second choice counted, and so on until a winner is declared.

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“We know that rank choice voting works and works well, because it's already been used in some of our mountain towns for over a decade,” Templin said.

Two years ago, Colorado passed a law making it easier for cities and counties to switch to ranked choice voting. Carbondale, Telluride and Basalt already use it. Boulder and Broomfield will start this November, and Fort Collins will switch over in 2025.

Most Colorado cities or counties, including Denver, already use elections equipment compatible with the software for ranked choice voting, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Startup costs include paying for licenses, designing new ballots and educating voters. But supporters of ranked choice voting, and the Denver Elections Division, say that after the initial investment, the new process would save taxpayers money.

“This runoff cost $2 million. That's the same cost roughly as the General Municipal Election we had in April,” said Lucille Wenegieme, the Strategic Advisor for the Denver Clerk and Recorder, which is responsible for administering elections.

“If we're not having a runoff, there's definitely cost savings there,” Wenegieme said.

The Denver Elections Division determined in 2021 that ranked choice voting is a viable option. But Denver City Council ultimately decided against ranked choice. Instead, the council voted to increase the time between the general and runoff elections.

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Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn led the opposition to ranked choice voting two years ago, and he plans to push back against the renewed proposals.

“Denver already has the gold standard of local elections,” Flynn said. “Ranked choice voting almost never produces a majority victor. It depends on throwing out ballots of voters who turned up and expressed their choice, but no longer had any choices remaining.”

Flynn has studied almost 50 cities across the country using ranked choice voting. He worries the process is less democratic and could build mistrust in elections.

With runoffs, “if you didn't vote for [the top candidates], you'd nevertheless get a ballot, and you can choose from between them. So, you get a second chance. You cannot do that in ranked choice. Your ballot’s in the trash already,” Flynn said.

But supporters of ranked choice voting see it as a way to build a more inclusive democracy.

“More perspective is a part of the political process,” said Landon Mascareñaz, co-chair of the local committee Denver Deserves Democracy, which plans to build political support for ranked choice voting in the coming months.

“We've done amazing work to build out a way for candidates to get access to more dollars in the election,” Mascareñaz said, referring to the Fair Elections Fund launched for the first time this year. Moving forward, “it's more choice that we need in our democracy,” he said.

There are two ways Denver could make the switch to ranked choice voting. City Council could put a measure on the ballot, or Denver residents could collect signatures and file a petition to get it on the ballot. Either way, it’ll be up to Denver voters to decide.


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