How Denver’s city elections might change

Officials and the public are weighing a change to how votes are counted and when the election happens.

Miguel "Angel" Harlston processes ballots inside Denver Elections Division headquarters on election day, May 7, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Miguel "Angel" Harlston processes ballots inside Denver Elections Division headquarters on election day, May 7, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photos

Denver’s May 2019 city election was close in a lot of respects. For one, no candidate for mayor earned more than half of the vote the first time around, which led to a runoff between Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock, the eventual winner.

You know who else cut it close? The Denver Elections Division. It risked disenfranchising military and other overseas voters because of a tight turnaround between the general municipal election and the runoff election a month later, said Clerk and Recorder Paul López, who was not in charge at the time. Denver is supposed to follow state election laws, which say ballots should be mailed 45 days before an election day. But the runoff was only 30 days out.

“If we were mailing ballots to military and overseas voters for the runoff election under that normal 45-day deadline, we would’ve mailed them before we even knew who was supposed to be on the ballot,” said Dan Volkosh, policy and compliance administrator for Denver Elections, during an online town hall meeting Wednesday.

There wasn’t enough time to prepare, edit, translate, print and mail the ballots — and have them returned — before the deadline. So Denver Elections, which has rule-making authority, adopted a policy that basically said election officials could do what was necessary to get votes in as fast as they could. Voatz, an app that uses blockchain technology, stepped in and helped save the day at no cost to taxpayers.

“That was a one-time deal. We were very lucky that someone was there to pick up the cost at that point,” Volkosh said. “I don’t think we can really rely on philanthropy for the entire time.”

So that’s the main reason why Clerk López, the city’s top elections official, wants to change things up. Here’s what else is on the table.

Denver could just make its municipal election earlier in the year, or align it with the November election.

Election day for city offices — mayor, city council, clerk and recorder, auditor, and so on — currently takes place the first Tuesday in May. That date, however, is really the last day to vote because of Denver’s flourishing vote-by-mail system.

One proposal on the table would move city general elections up to April but keep the runoff in June to give election workers more time to get ballots from around the world back to Denver on time.

Moving the election to November is another possibility, but officials say that move would have to be paired with a new election format that gets rid of runoffs.

Approval voting, where people vote for all the candidates they like, is one possibility.

Approval voting lets you pick all the candidates you’d be OK with electing — without ranking them — and cast a ballot. In the format’s simplest form, whoever gets the most votes wins. Still, runoffs are possible, depending on the details, Volkosh said.

Supporters of approval voting say it’s better than traditional voting because it lets people vote their conscience — to choose their favorite candidate (or candidates) instead of the one they think has the best chance of winning. They say the results will be acceptable to the majority of people, and that the process eliminates the “spoiler effect” (think Ralph Nader in the election that sent George W. Bush to the White House).

Another possibility is ranked-choice voting, which asks people to rank candidates from best to worst.

In ranked-choice voting, if a candidate grabs more than 50 percent of the vote, they win. If no candidate earns more than half the pie, the person with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and counters re-tally the votes with the remaining candidates. The process repeats until someone gets more than 50 percent. Ranked-choice eliminates the need for a separate runoff election, which is why the format is also called “instant runoff.”

Like approval voting, supporters of ranked-choice say the format lets people vote their conscience instead of for the candidate they think has the best chance of winning. They say it discourages negative campaigning because candidates are competing for second-place votes as well.

Are these descriptions of election reform choices overly simplistic?

Yes! These voting formats are filled with what-ifs that lead to different outcomes. People have strong feelings about each option.

Denver Elections has created this guide to help you understand the ins and outs of each idea. It helpfully tells you if each piece of information comes from a person or group lobbying for one idea over the other, or if the information comes from a neutral source.

Does anyone else in America use approval voting or ranked-choice voting?

Yes.

Fargo, North Dakota, has implemented an approval voting system. St. Louis voters have OK’d the switch but have not yet put it into practice.

Ranked-choice voting is used more widely, including in Basalt, Carbondale and Telluride. Boulder voters approved the change last year. Outside of Colorado, dozens of cities including New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Oakland have adopted the practice. Maine and Alaska have, too.

However, some places have tried ranked-choice and repealed it, including Aspen, Massachusetts, and Burlington, Vermont. Fort Collins voters declined the idea.

If election officials are only concerned about the election’s timing, why are they tampering with traditional vote-counting?

They believe that if they’re going to mess around inside the city charter anyway, they might as well see if there are other ways to “modernize” city elections while they’re poking around in there, López said. It’s possible that changing the election’s date will be the only amendment when all is said and done.

“Our whole philosophy is that we want to make it easy, regardless,” López said. “We just want to make it easy for voters to vote, and we do our best to remove barriers and expand that access.”

Would these types of voting apply to presidential or congressional elections?

No, just local elections for candidates in the City and County of Denver.

Who gets to decide what, if any, changes are made to Denver elections?

In the end, it will be up to voters in November. Changes like these require amending the city charter, which is essentially Denver’s constitution. Altering the charter requires a vote of the people.

Clerk López and a charter review committee have been — and are continuing to — get opinions from the public on the best path forward. When the public process concludes, López will recommend his preferred option to the Denver City Council. Theoretically, the council will iron out the details and send it to the November ballot. They have until late August to make it happen.

However, citizen groups can send their own initiative to voters. One pro-approval voting group, Denver Approves, is monitoring the city-led process and could file their own initiative depending on its outcome.

Officials say they would like to avoid competing measures, which is why they’re going through this process.

“I think it’s fair to say … that we’ve tried to scan the entire universe of possibilities for how we can proceed with the next municipal election,” said Councilmember Kevin Flynn, who sits on the charter review committee.

Can I tell the people in power what I think of these ideas?

Yes. Officials say they want to hear from the public. You can take an online survey (just once, López asks) and visit the clerk’s website for information on public meetings or to contact the office directly.

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