Kefalas urges instant-runoff voting to give elected officials "more of a mandate"

Rebecca Boyle // Published April 30, 2008 in Fort Collins Now
When Eric Eidsness surprised many political observers by getting 11 percent of the vote in 2006, something else happened: Nobody won a majority.

The incumbent in the 4th Congressional District, Republican U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, won 46 percent of the vote. Her challenger, former Democratic State Rep. Angie Paccione, won 43 percent.

Ergo, a majority 54 percent of the electorate did not vote for Musgrave.

A bill making its way through the state Legislature could conceivably change that outcome, so a clear winner can emerge with a clear mandate.

It would only be for municipal elections at first, but House Bill 1378, by Rep. John Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat, could change the way voters make their picks in multi-candidate elections.

The bill would create a pilot project for ranked voting, or instant runoff voting, for use in special districts, municipalities and counties.

“It encourages, in my view, greater participation of candidates,” Kefalas said. “You can vote for a third-party candidate and not feel like you are wasting your vote.”

He noted that Dublin, London and San Francisco already use it.

It works like this: The presence of at least three candidates would kick in the ranked voting system. Voters could choose as many candidates as they want, ranking their top choices, their No. 2 choices and their last choices, if they so ... choose.

When all the votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority, the lowest vote-getter would be booted and the second-place votes on his or her ballots would be counted.

In 2006, hypothetically, Eidsness would have been eliminated, having received the fewest first-place votes. Instead, the second-place votes for either Musgrave or Paccione would count toward those candidates’ totals, along with the voters who had placed those candidates at No. 1. That way, the victor would have had a clear majority, not just a plurality.

“Then, someone like Rep. Musgrave can say, ‘I have more of a mandate,’” Kefalas said.

The system would seem to favor Democrats, who in recent history have been the party to lose votes to third-party candidates. Ralph Nader comes to mind.

There’s no way to tally how many of Eidsness’ 11 percent would have gone to Paccione or Musgrave, and both sides claim they would have gotten the votes, but it’s fair to say that many people who wanted Eidsness more than Musgrave may have put the challenger in second place.

Kefalas said he liked the notion of promoting minor parties.

Most Republicans voted against the bill in the House, along with a few Democrats. It passed the House last week on a narrow 36-29 vote and now faces a similar fight in the Senate.

When the bill was debated last week, Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, added that the state’s election process has enough problems without introducing a new way to pick candidates.

“We don’t need to encourage the secretary of state to spend more time on this,” he said. “We need to focus on this election first.”

But Kefalas said home-rule cities, which can devise their own rules, can already hold instant runoff voting if they so choose. Fort Collins is a home-rule city, but the city charter says whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it’s a plurality instead of a majority.

Kefalas’ bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, allows statutory cities to do it, too, and asks the secretary of state’s office to provide some guidelines for cities that choose it.

Last fall, Aspen voters overwhelmingly approved the system for elections in that city—those that turned out, anyway. Only 16 percent of the electorate showed up to approve the measure, but it will take effect in the city’s election in May 2009.

Fort Collins would also have to ask the voters before the procedure could be implemented.

In several municipal elections, instant runoff voting could be far easier—and cheaper—than a true runoff, a second election after no victor emerges.

It would have helped ease some of the chaos in Denver’s mayoral race in 2003, which John Hickenlooper won after a runoff. In the capital city, candidates must have more than 50 percent to be elected. If no one does, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff. In the first round of elections, Hickenlooper received 43 percent of the vote. In a runoff weeks later, he won in a landslide.

Kefalas’ bill emerged from a task force Kefalas led last year about voter choices. The task force, which included a group of residents, was charged with examining the state’s plurality electoral system and considering whether any changes were needed. Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Scott Doyle was on the commission.

According to the group’s final report, several voter groups advocate instant-runoff voting, saying it’s a better way to tally votes in a multi-candidate race.

“IRV would more likely yield a more accurate representation of voter sentiment since results would be based on a larger number of votes,” the report says.

Kefalas said if the bill becomes law, the secretary of state would be required to complete a report by 2011, in time for municipal elections that year.

“If we do this, it might provide an incentive for people to do (ranked voting), and in the end, it’s totally up to the local governments,” he said.