The health of representative democracy depends on its rules treating people equally and fairly and reliably expressing voters’ preferences. Conspiracy mongering by certain Republicans notwithstanding, Coloradans can trust our election results. But our election rules for candidates and voters do have some serious defects that we should fix.
- 1) Ballot access rules should treat all candidates equally, not give some people easier ballot access than others. But Colorado rules give party candidates easier ballot access than non-party candidates.
- 2) Those rules should be fair and not exclude some candidates due to their compliance costs. But Colorado rules require non-party candidates to undergo an expensive and physically demanding process of gathering many signatures on paper, which prevents some people with financial or physical limitations from running for office.
- 3) Government should not spend tax dollars to unfairly advantage some candidates over others. But Colorado rules spend state resources to run party-specific primaries, which give party candidates exposure and exclude non-party candidates.
- 4) Voters should be able to well-express their preferences to minimize the possibility of electing polarizing candidates who appeal only to a minority of voters. But Colorado rules limit voters to expressing a preference only for a single candidate, which in some situations can lead to a candidate winning without broad public support. Consider: In a three-way race, it’s possible for a candidate to win with with only 34% support, even if a majority of people would prefer that either of the other two candidates wins. We also face situations in which a minor-party candidate might “spoil” the race for a major-party candidate.
The Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, who benefit from the current system of party privilege, could have acted at any time to fix our election rules. They have, to date, declined to do so.
Enter Kent Thiry, the wealthy business person who wants to fund a ballot measure next year to fix several (but not all) of these problems. As I’ve discussed, I disagree with aspects of Thiry’s proposal. For example, Thiry wants ranked choice voting, but approval voting (vote for as many candidates as you want) is a lot easier for governments to implement and for voters to understand, and it better-assures that candidates with broad public support win.
I get it: Progressives immediately are suspicious of any wealthy person claiming to want to fix our democracy. But we are talking about Thiry in this context only because Progressive Democrats in the legislature so far have declined to address the problems at hand. We should evaluate elements of Thiry’s proposal on their merits, not dismiss them out of hand just because Thiry promotes them. If legislators would commit to fixing the relevant problems starting next year (with implementation perhaps by 2026), that would make Thiry’s ballot measure moot.
Here I want to consider the argument that we should delay election reform by some years. Here is how Scott Wasserman presents that case:
Precisely at one of the most precarious moments in our national and global history, a wealthy health executive is ready to pay for a total rewrite of Colorado’s election system as we know it. What could possibly go wrong?
And while I’m sure there are some very reasonable arguments for open primary and rank choice voting systems, they are all accompanied by the impossible assurance from the smartest people in the room that we know how this works and what the actual impacts will be. Meanwhile this country is just a few faithless electors away from the end of Democracy. Does that seem like a good time to completely change how we vote for statewide elected officials?
Wasserman’s concerns about potential technical problems with the proposed reforms are mostly unfounded; such systems already have been implemented in some places. Boulder just successfully used ranked choice voting for its mayoral race (again, approval voting would be better). As Sandra Fish points out, California already uses an open primary. As I’ve mentioned, I do worry about the relative complexity of ranked choice voting, which is one reason why I favor approval voting.
Wasserman’s concerns about people reacting badly to election reform might carry some weight if Colorado were a swing state, but it isn’t. Colorado went for Joe Biden over Trump in 2020 by a margin of nearly 14%. Most Colorado Republican candidates were beaten badly in 2022. By and large, Colorado voters have repeatedly and resoundingly rejected Republican candidates and their message.
Sure, Colorado suffers from its Trumpist conspiracy mongering and violence-tinged rhetoric—and several Coloradans were involved in the January 6 Capitol assault — but the Trumpist movement is simply not strong enough in Colorado to cause many problems with elections. Yes, there’s the case of Tina Peters from the Western Slope. Still, there’s no realistic scenario in which election reform in Colorado, to be be implemented by 2026 at the earliest, could somehow lead to faithless electors or any such problem in 2024.
Progressive Democrats in particular should want election rules to treat people equally and fairly, not entrench party privilege, and to well-express voters’ preferences. Colorado’s existing rules do not always measure up. Democrats should stop making excuses for inaction and come up with concrete solutions.