Nov 9, 2023 - News

How ranked choice voting upended the Boulder mayor's race

A graphic showing vote changes with ranked choice voting
Ranked choice voting in the Boulder mayor's race, as of 4:30pm Wednesday. Image courtesy of Boulder County Elections

The city of Boulder, a bastion of progressive politics, hub for Democratic socialism and ivory tower of liberal ideology, almost elected a former Republican as mayor.

Driving the news: At least, that's what the results from Tuesday's election looked like for nearly 24 hours as city Councilmember Bob Yates, a registered Republican until May 2022 when he became unaffiliated, stood at the top of the field with a narrow lead.

Reality check: Then ranked choice voting came into play.

What's happening: Incumbent Mayor Aaron Brockett, a self-described liberal Democrat, moved ahead with a 497-vote lead in the latest tally Wednesday afternoon and is expected to win the city's first ranked choice election.

  • His margin of victory is expected to grow as the final few thousand votes are counted, and apportioned by first and second choice between the top two vote-getters, as the system dictates.
  • The second-choice votes for third-place finisher Nicole Speer, a councilmember endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, are overwhelmingly favoring Brockett.

Why it matters: Beyond creating a momentary frenzy about the possibility of Boulder electing a former Republican, the election is a fascinating study into the impact of ranked choice voting, which is being considered by Denver and other Colorado localities.

  • It shifted Boulder's municipal politics to the left, a dynamic observers expect to continue.

What they're saying: "Ranked choice voting really made a difference and changed the outcome of our mayor's election," Speer told Axios Denver in an interview Wednesday.

  • "What ranked choice voting allowed us to get was someone who is a more center-left candidate," she said.

Between the lines: Yates, who once described himself as a "progressive Republican," set a record in the 2019 election for council when he received the most votes of any Boulder candidate in 14 years.

  • Even though the city is liberal, the voters who cast ballots in off-year municipal elections tend to be older and more conservative — voters who aligned with Yates' support for limits on development and growth. He did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

Zoom in: Yates and Brockett won seats on Boulder City Council in 2015 and 2019, with Yates receiving more votes than Brockett each time.

  • Brockett planned to draft Speer and pick up progressive voters — he said he even knocked on the doors of voters with Speer's signs in their front yards, asking to be their second pick.
  • But it remained unclear whether voters would pick a second-choice candidate under the new format.

The bottom line: Brockett acknowledged that without ranked choice voting, he may no longer be mayor. "Certainly ranked choice is very different from a plurality winner" system, he said.

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