From gerrymandered districts to an obsolete voting system that forces voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, there is a lot of opportunity for Colorado to lead the way in making sure every vote counts on election day.
There are two big problems with our current electoral system in Colorado. The first is partisan gerrymandering, which has received some significant recent attention, and some significant commitments from both parties to reform. The second is the plurality-based, or ‘first past the post’ voting system we use in Colorado. This has received significantly less attention, but is just as big of a problem.
The vast majority of house and senate districts in Colorado are considered uncompetitive due to partisan gerrymandering – they are safely under the control of one of the major parties. When districts are gerrymandered for partisan advantage, a lot of undemocratic ugliness results. First, it creates a situation in which our elected officials have no incentive to represent the interests of the majority of voters in their district. If the only voters that matter are primary election voters (because the general election is basically a done deal), and those voters are overwhelmingly the most partisan voters in the district, then why appeal to people in the opposing party, moderates in your own party, or independent voters? This leads to representatives who effectively only represent the interests of a small minority of voters in their district (moderates, independents and the opposing party's voters making up the majority), because they are the only ones whose vote really counts. This makes a mockery of the system of representative democracy that our founders intended.
Second, gerrymandered districts lead to gridlock. The partisan extremists are the ones who hold the ear of representatives in gerrymandered districts, because they are the ones who will decide the election even though they are a minority. And partisan extremists tend to see finding common ground with people they disagree with as a kind of betrayal. The result is that representatives who try to reach across the aisle and find common ground, which is necessary for lasting political progress, quickly find themselves out of office, having been bested by a more extreme partisan in their party’s primary. This process recurs election cycle after election cycle and partly explains the growing ideological gulf between the two parties.
One solution is to give equal say in the redistricting process to the two major parties and unaffiliated voters. I support the bipartisan measures to appear on the ballot this fall, approved by the Colorado legislature, with support from Fair Districts Colorado and People Not Politicians. This represents an opportunity for Colorado to once more take the national lead in important reform efforts. But we need independents in office to make sure these reforms are carried through, because fixing elections through gerrymandering has proven to be extremely tempting to whichever major party stands to benefit.
While the recent progress on gerrymandering is encouraging, an equally pressing problem with our electoral system has received relatively little attention in Colorado. That is our plurality-based or ‘first past the post’ voting system. Both parties agreed to address gerrymandering not, in the words of State Sen. Fenberg, one of the authors of the recent measures, because ‘all of a sudden kumbaya’ (CPR). Instead it was exhaustion and frustration with past iterations of closely contested gerrymandering fights that drove the two parties to finally do the right thing. The issue of plurality-based voting is different because both parties benefit equally from the practice. But its effect on our democracy is just as bad.
In a plurality-based system, the candidate who receives the most votes - a plurality, not necessarily a majority in races with more than two candidates - wins. While this might seem like a natural way to run an election, political scientists, mathematicians and economists who study voting systems are in unanimous agreement that this is one of the worst ways to conduct an election. Here are some reasons why:
- Plurality based voting often forces voters to cast votes for a candidate that they don’t really want. This is because in a race with more than two candidates, the candidate a voter most prefers might be perceived as unlikely to win. So they will cast a vote for the candidate who has a decent chance of winning, and is less detestable than the alternative. Anyone who has held their nose and voted for a major party candidate instead of the independent or third party candidate they truly wanted knows how this dynamic works.
- Plurality based voting discourages political competition and reinforces the two-party duopoly. The lesser of two evils voting strategy is the main reason why the two major parties have maintained their vice grip on American politics despite their considerable unpopularity with voters. A voting system that takes into account a voter's full set of preferences would allow greater competition and make the parties more accountable to what voters really want.
- Plurality based voting rewards divisive partisanship and nasty campaigning. If all that matters is winning a plurality of votes, then viciously attacking your opponents, or stoking people’s fear and anxiety and pitting them against other voters can be a winning strategy. In voting systems where voters’ second and third choices are taken into account, this doesn’t happen. If nasty campaigning gets 35% of voters to most favor you in a three way race, but alienates the remaining 65% of voters, then you will not win the election in systems that take a voter’s full set of preferences into account.
What’s the alternative to plurality based voting? There are a few voting systems that would be significant improvements in terms of better accounting for voters’ preferences and eliminating bad incentives for candidates. But the one that is getting some real political traction, and has a successful record in a few other countries, several U.S. municipalities, and very recently in the state of Maine, is Ranked Choice Voting. Here’s how it works:
- Each voter ranks all of the candidates on their ballots from first (most preferred) to last.
- If one of the candidates has a majority (>50%) of the first place votes, then they win the election. In races with only two candidates, this is where the process will end, just like in a plurality-based system.
- But if no candidate secures a majority of first place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes will be removed from contention and the second place votes on the ballots that went for that candidate will be distributed among the remaining candidates. If one of the remaining candidates now has a majority, they win the election (in a three way race, this will happen at this step). If not, then the candidate with the next fewest first place votes will be eliminated from the ballot and their second place votes redistributed, and so on until one candidate has a majority of votes.
Sometimes called an ‘Instant Run-Off’ election, Ranked Choice Voting is superior to plurality based voting. It encourages decency in campaigning because candidates have a real incentive to end up in second place on voter’s ballots, thus discouraging the divisive politicking that alienates many voters. This is known to have been the case in places where Ranked Choice Voting has been implemented. Even more importantly, it allows voters’ true preferences to be accounted for – they can feel free to vote for the candidate they really want without fearing that they will spoil the election in favor of the candidate they least want. This would help break up the dysfunctional two party dynamic that has afflicted American politics by exposing the two parties to true competition.
For more info on efforts to introduce Ranked Choice Voting in Colorado, check out https://rcvforcolorado.org/