Election Center

A Colorado election clerk’s perspective on using RCV in his state’s elections

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Throughout the country, including here in Colorado, special interests are promoting new voting systems that would change the way we conduct our elections. Among these reforms is a new voting system called ranked-choice voting (RCV).

A bill to implement RCV in Colorado has potential to be debated this session in the state legislature and a ballot initiative campaign is waiting for the secretary of state’s approval before signature gathering commences.

Pro-reform groups are undoubtedly preparing to spend large sums of money convincing Coloradans that RCV is the best voting system we could employ. Before this course of action begins, I hope you’ll consider the negative impacts of a change to RCV — particularly since you won’t hear this information in the 30-second radio and television sound bites distributed by the campaigns.

Full-scale election reform is no small feat. To properly conduct an election, there’s a lot of hard work and collaboration involved on behalf of 64 county offices and the Secretary of State’s Office. Before we make a big change, and before the campaigns get into full swing, I hope voters will consider some points and shortcomings of RCV.

Municipalities in Colorado have home rule and are free to adopt RCV if they wish, especially if local taxpayers agree to the additional costs that come with conducting RCV elections. Telluride uses RCV in its mayoral elections. Aspen adopted the system in 2009 but voters rejected it in 2010 after seeing it in action.

The election equipment and software used in the state does not currently support the use of RCV in statewide elections. To use RCV in El Paso County, it’s estimated the system would impose upfront costs of $340,000 and an additional $70,000 per year. If lawmakers adopt RCV at the state level without making appropriations to aid implementation at the local level, taxpayers will be left responsible to pick up the tab in property taxes.

At the state level, costs are even greater. It’s estimated that adopting RCV would cost the state $2.4 million to $3 million in upfront expenses and an additional $350,000 to $400,000 each following year.

Pro-RCV groups claim the system helps save money in jurisdictions where it’s implemented, but this simply isn’t true in places where runoff elections are not conducted. The main drivers of costs are the software and equipment necessary to tabulate RCV ballots, as well as the retrieval of ballots for counting at a central location.

It’s important that Coloradans trust our voting system and the results it produces. RCV poses serious concerns about election integrity. Voters need certainty that elections are transparent, fair, accurate, and secure.

Waiting days or weeks to receive election results that derive from proprietary software and computer programs instead of our current systems means there will be extra scrutiny and public concern over the manner in which our elections are conducted.

Another legitimate concern is the information costs of voting under the RCV system and the way voters react to this change. We already field hundreds of questions from voters during elections conducted via the traditional voting system, and it’s reasonable to assume voters will have even more if we change the way we vote.

Research shows that RCV increases the prevalence of spoiled ballots, reduces turnout among some minority populations and exacerbates differences between experienced and less experienced voters.

Understanding the policy differences between candidates to the point where a voter can meaningfully rank all candidates in order of preference requires a great deal of political engagement in excess of the extent to which most voters engage.

A recent KOAA news piece incorrectly identifies RCV as a solution to voters casting ballots for withdrawn candidates. RCV doesn’t enable voters to cast two ballots, or to vote for extra candidates after submitting an early or absentee ballot.

It’s a vote on a single ballot simultaneously tabulated in instant runoff fashion. If you rank candidates who have withdrawn or suspended their campaigns nationally but not at the state level, your vote is just as meaningless as the 160,000 votes cast for withdrawn candidates in Colorado on Super Tuesday.

There’s no need to complicate the straightforward voting process we currently employ by adopting RCV. Voting should be as simple and easy as possible, for voters and election administrators.

This piece was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

About Chuck Broerman

Chuck Broerman is the El Paso County, Colorado clerk and recorder.

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