Could Ranked Choice Have Avoided Colorado’s Primary Drop-Out Drama?

March 2, 2020
Pete Buttigieg RallyPete Buttigieg RallyHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters Saturday night, Feb. 22, in Aurora.

Kyle Schlachter paused before delivering his ballot for Colorado’s Democratic primary last month. He saw that “half the names on the ballot” had dropped out of the race already -- candidates like Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Marianne Williamson. A vote for them would be wasted.

But he didn't think that would happen to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, his candidate of choice.

I figured he’d still be in it through Super Tuesday,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot that would change.”

But then a lot changed. Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race just before Super Tuesday, when Colorado and 13 other states will award their delegates.

It was a blow for Schlachter, who now regrets voting early. And enough people have complained that the state’s Democratic leaders have started hinting at solutions.

“I think it's a conversation starter," said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett. He suggested voters could be allowed a do-over vote if their preferred candidate drops out, but didn't provide any details about how to implement that in a system with secret ballots. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg is also interested but noncommittal.

Others say it’s a reason to talk about a bigger changes to the system.

"That situation is an example is of why we’re looking into ranked choice voting and other alternative voting methods," said Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

It's too late to help stranded voters this year, she said, "but I do think this spurs a conversation about what future Colorado law should be."

How ranked choice works

In a ranked system, voters wouldn’t just choose one candidate. They could instead indicate their level of preference for some or all of the candidates.

So, for example, Kyle Schlachter said if given the chance, he would have marked Sen. Elizabeth Warren as his second choice and Joe Biden as his third choice. Under that system, after Buttigieg dropped out, Schlachter's ballot would have transferred to the next candidate on his list.

“It allows voters to say this is my first preference, this is my second, third, fourth, fifth,” said elections consultant Amber McReynolds, formerly the elections director for Denver. “You don’t lose your vote.”

Democratic parties in several other states will use the ranked system in their upcoming primaries and caucuses: Alaska, Wyoming, Kansas, and Hawaii. Nevada used it in its recent caucus and Maine will use it in the general election.

Dropout candidates aren't actually the main rationale for the system, though. Instead, ballots are more often transferred when the first-choice candidate doesn't get enough support.

A typical ranked-choice system eliminates the last-place candidate and redistributes their ballots to voters’ next choices. The winnowing is repeated until all remaining candidates pass a set threshold -- 15% of the vote, for example.

There’s already some ranked-choice momentum in Colorado. Griswold is researching the option and other new election methods, and she's launched a committee to consider the logistics. Whether to ultimately implement ranked choice voting would be up to the legislature or to voters to decide.

Schlachter, the Buttigieg voter, also wants the state to “explore” ranked choice voting, he said. He is a former Littleton City Council member.

“I think there need to be some better options for how people express their votes,” he said.

Supporters argue that ranked-choice would allow voters to express themselves with more nuance. For example, they could make their first choice an unlikely-to-win third-party candidate without “wasting” their vote. And the ultimate winners would be able to claim support from a broader section of the electorate.

But opponents say ranked choice would make things more complicated and costly.  Some have questioned whether voters know enough to rank multiple candidates. And voters who don’t fill out all their choices would ultimately have less influence than those who do.

Could it happen in Colorado? 

It depends on the election.

Changes to primary elections would require approval from the legislature or through a voter-approved referendum, Griswold said. The same goes for state and federal races in Colorado.

A couple citizen initiatives are trying to make some changes. One proposed ballot initiative would require ranked-choice voting-- or “instant runoff” voting -- for U.S. Congressional elections in Colorado. (Maine just started doing that, with some notable results.)

A separate ballot initiative is attempting to make “approval” voting the default for Colorado. Voters could select multiple candidates, and the candidate with the most combined support would win. But it's not clear yet if those initiatives will gather enough signatures to make the ballot.

Cities like Aspen and Telluride already have used ranked voting in local elections, although Aspen voters later rejected the system and Telluride won’t use it for the mayor’s race anymore, The Telluride Daily Planet reported.

As for this year's presidential primary, promptness will not pay off for some early voters; those whose candidate's didn't make it to Super Tuesday, are simply out of luck.

"I probably would have voted differently. I don’t totally know who I would have gone with -- maybe Biden," said Katie Siote, 32, who supported Buttigieg. "I don’t know. I’m just really bummed that he dropped out."

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