By: Wes Zieke
The pioneer spirit is alive and well in Colorado, this time manifesting itself as legislation to change the way Coloradans vote in certain elections. In 2021, Colorado signed HB-1071 into law making it easier for cities and towns to switch over to a Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) scheme in their nonpartisan elections. RCV is an increasingly popular electoral system, though only two states currently use it for all of their congressional and state elections (Alaska and Maine). So, what does HB-1071 do? To answer that question, we first need to know what RCV is and what it purports to address.
RCV is a voting system that allows voters to rank their choices from most to least preferable. Next, the votes are tallied and if a single candidate gets over half of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins and the election is over. However, if no candidate receives over half the first-choice votes, an instant runoff begins. In the instant runoff, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and everyone who voted for the eliminated candidate will have their second choice receive their vote. This can take several rounds, but it ultimately ensures that the winning candidate gets more than half of the votes. Does that make RCV the “perfect” voting system, or even an improvement?
Arrow’s impossibility theorem is often interpreted as a mathematical proof that there is no perfect voting system (given some assumptions about the state of the world). In other words, when we are trying to communicate group preferences via voting, we should weigh the pros and cons of each voting system, not attempt to find a system that perfectly communicates the voters’ preferences, because that system does not exist. What RCV provides is a different set of pros and cons than our current system.
Proponents of RCV argue that it leads to majority support, eliminates “spoiler” candidates, reduces political polarization, and is an overall more “fair” system. Of course, detractors argue that “fairness” is a normative consideration, not an absolute one. Additionally, perhaps our voting system is not what polarizes voters, perhaps our voters are simply polarized – and that cannot be undone by a voting system. Finally, as we’ve seen, RCV is a rather complex system that can lead to some counterintuitive outcomes (Condorcet paradoxes among them, though proponents are generally not concerned with this potential outcome). Notably, RCV does not seem to have any particular partisan favor. In other words, RCV has been on the rise throughout the country, regardless of local political affiliations.
HB-1071 was a step towards more use of RCV in Colorado, making it easier for interested cities to implement RCV. The bill only applies to nonpartisan elections such as municipalities. Currently, only four cities in Colorado use this method, but proponents of RCV think that cost has been the prohibitive factor for more cities using this method. As mentioned above, RCV can be a fairly complicated, and therefore a costly way to run elections. It can require specialized software upgrades, which the state is now offering to foot the bill for. According to ColoradoSun, 62 of the 64 counties in Colorado already use a software program that can be upgraded to add RCV, meaning that RCV could be right around the corner for most Coloradoans.