Open General Elections Deserve Support in Colorado

by Drew Spencer // Published May 6, 2014

FairVote has been on the cutting edge of analysis and criticism of the “Top Two” system of elections used in California and Washington. We support opening primary elections as long as taxpayers are financing them and freedom of association is upheld, but believe the key emphasis should be on opening up the critically important general elections. Rather than advancing only two candidates to the general election ballot in primaries with lower, less representative voter turnout, we support advancing more than two candidates and conducting the general election using ranked choice voting. A version of our “Top Four” proposal may soon be seeing its first campaign in Colorado.

On Tuesday, April 29th, a group of Colorado activists called The Coalition for a New Colorado Election System held a press conference to announce that it has begun collecting signatures for a new approach to election reform. We have been communicating with the Coalition’s director Ryan Ross for more than a year, and admire his drive to get his measure this far. We like many of its details, including how he upholds freedom of association for both political parties and individuals and how it opens up general elections.

The Coalition’s proposal weaves together two interdependent changes. The first is the adoption of the “nonpartisan blanket primary” used in states that elect officeholders under a Top Two model. That means that there will be a single preliminary election in which all candidates seeking office run against each other irrespective of political party. Each voter has exactly one vote to help decide which candidates will advance to the general election.

Where this proposal differs from Top Two is that instead of only the two candidates with the most votes advancing to the general election, the general election will feature all candidates who get at least 3% of the vote, and always at least three candidates (provided no candidates wins a majority of the vote in the first round). Because more than two candidates will appear on the general election ballot, the general election always will use ranked choice voting to ensure that a weak candidate does not win election just because two or more stronger candidates split the vote between them.

The Coalition’s proposal does have several unique elements that FairVote does not incorporate into our Top Four recommendation. For one, it advances more than four candidates any time more than four candidates get at least 3% of the vote each, a fairly common occurrence in high profile races. While allowing only three rankings in such elections is still much better than a traditional plurality voting elections, it is not ideal. The Coalition also has only one candidate advance if that candidate receives at least 50% in the preliminary election, a change that we suspect conflicts with federal law, based on the Foster v. Love case involving Louisiana’s prior system. Finally, the inclusion of presidential elections would have been easier if simply adding RCV to the general election ballot and allowing the nomination process to proceed as it does under current law.

Nonetheless, this campaign represents a real step forward in how reformers think about primary election reform. Publicly funded primaries should not exclude blocs of voters based on their partisan preferences, but Top Two opens up the primaries at the cost of closing off the general election in many important races. General elections matter, and it is great to see that Colorado is considering a proposal that will open both the primaries and the general elections. We hope reformers in that state will get involved in the Coalition’s campaign.