Mar 21, 2023 - Politics

Ranked choice voting gets another look in Denver amid mayor's race

Illustration of gold, silver and bronze check marks.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

With a lengthy list of hopefuls running in the Denver mayor's race, the idea of adopting ranked choice voting (RCV) appears to be gaining momentum in the Mile High City.

Why it matters: Some Denverites are feeling discouraged to vote in the April 4 election because they feel their voice will be lost on such a crowded ballot. Their concerns come at a time when voter turnout for local elections is already historically low.

  • Supporters of RCV say the process could push more people to the polls by better reflecting voters' preferences, ensuring their second and third choices are taken into account if their first-choice candidate can't win.
  • Denver's electoral system requires a mayoral candidate to receive 50% of the vote. But with 16 candidates on the ballot — and not a single one polling above 10% — a runoff election in June is inevitable.

The big picture: Ranked choice voting is growing more popular across the country, including in Colorado. State lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 that makes it easier for cities to adopt the method, and a handful of Colorado municipalities have approved or are already experimenting with it.

Driving the news: At a 9News debate earlier this month, many of the heavy hitters in Denver's mayoral race said — with a show of hands — that, if elected, they would pursue RCV or approval voting instead of the current runoff system.

  • Meanwhile, Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul López, who is running for reelection unchallenged, tells Axios Denver he still thinks RCV is a "viable option" for the city since he first proposed the idea to council members in 2021.

What they're saying: Without RCV in place, "money wins the day. Whoever can get the most money for TV, it kind of becomes like a popularity contest rather than an actual election," Amber McReynolds, a national elections expert and former Denver elections director, told Westword in January.

Between the lines: The Fair Elections Fund — an $8 million public campaign financing mechanism approved in 2018 that's rolling out for the first time this election — has helped level the financial playing field and made it possible for more than a dozen candidates to be on the ballot, López says.

Yes, but: It hasn't kept big money out of the mayoral race, the Colorado Sun reports.

  • Critics say the fund has shifted big spending to outside groups. For example, as of March 12, super PACs had spent nearly $1.8 million on mayoral campaigns compared with just $253,000 on City Council races, per the Sun.

What to watch: López's office is planning to conduct an analysis of how the Fair Elections Fund worked and will prepare a report over the summer that details recommendations ahead of the 2027 municipal election, he says.


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