Colorado, the GOP, and IRV

by Patrick Withers // Published July 26, 2010

At noon today, Mountain Standard Time, former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo announced his intention to run for governor of Colorado on the American Constitution Party ticket.   This is the latest act in the continuously-unfolding drama of the Colorado Republican Party primary which for weeks has been a source of headache for the GOP, leading to rumors that the influential Republican Governors Association might pull out of the state entirely.    It may well show that, like other gubernatorial elections in states such as Florida and Rhode Island, our plurality system becomes dysfunctional when more than two candidates seek office.

The current controversy stems from allegations that Scoot McInnis, the one-time presumptive nominee, plagiarized a variety of documents , from floor speeches back when he was a U.S. Congressman to a report for which he was paid $300,000. Concerned that the only other candidate in the race, Dan Maes, cannot win the general election and that McInnis is too tarnished to pull a November victory, reports are circulating that the Colorado state GOP plans to force McInnis out after his expected primary win , thereby allowing the party to select a nominee of their choice.
Tancredo found this situation unacceptable and pledged to enter the race as a third party candidate unless both Maes and McInnis pledged to drop out of the race if they won the primary and were trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper.  As both Maes and McInnis refused, Tancredo announced that he was joining the race.

Many Republican leaders across the state are furious at Tancredo for entering the race, not least among them Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams.  In a statement , Wadhams blamed Tancredo for being a “spoiler,” saying, “Regardless of who our nominee is for governor after the primary, if Tom Tancredo carries through on his threat to run as a third party candidate, he will be responsible for the election of Denver Mayor [and Democrat] John Hickenlooper as governor and for other races that will be imperiled as well.”

Regardless of how you feel about Congressman Tancredo, this may very well be true. In many circles, Tancredo is a very popular figure and has supporters both across the state and across the country. In the latest polls, Tancredo is easily leading in popularity a list of potential gubernatorial nominees, including McInnis.  His candidacy has the very real possibility of splitting the vote and, by doing so, allowing the Democrats to win the governor’s race which, not all that long ago, seemed to be an uphill battle.

This current situation in Colorado is a perfect example of why democracy is better served with instant runoff voting (IRV) rather than the current primary system. Under IRV, Tancredo’s candidacy would not risk creating a “spoiler effect”  because, rather than simply selecting the most preferred candidate as per current Colorado law, a voter would rank all of the candidates in order of preference.  When the votes are tabulated, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and those votes are recounted for the person who was ranked next on the ballot by that voter.  The process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes.

This system is often touted as having the benefit of ensuring majority rule while not requiring a costly second election, either a primary or a runoff. These benefits are true and very important ones. However, I believe that one element of IRV that is often overlooked is that it permits people to vote as they see fit without having to worry about the effect of their votes.  Yes, a voter’s first choice may not win. However, IRV increases the odds that the candidate who wins will share at least some of the views held by a majority of voters. Two candidates with similar views can run in the same election without doing what Wadhams fears Tancredo will do and be a “spoiler” by splitting the vote and handing the election to the Democrats.

The people of Colorado deserve elections about ideas and policies rather than insults and maneuvering. While this ideal may not be realizable in the short term, the current predicament in Colorado shines a spotlight on the problems with the current “first past the post” system and suggests that, perhaps, there are better, more democratic ways of voting.