Colorado voters will likely be asked next year to radically overhaul the state’s election system by adopting an “open” primary system and ranked-choice voting in general elections while also doing away with the caucus and assembly process of putting candidates on the ballot. The proposal would also replace vacancy committees with special elections when state lawmakers resign.
The changes would be made through a 2024 ballot measure amending the Colorado Constitution. If approved, the constitutional amendment would take effect in 2026.
Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis provider DaVita, has funded a number of ballot initiatives in the state in recent years overhauling elections and democratic processes and is behind the proposal. He said it’s a response to sharp partisan divisions in Colorado and across the nation that he sees as a threat to democracy.
“I think this is about bringing voice and choice back to the people,” he told The Colorado Sun. “Whether they’re Democrats, Republicans or independents, they need their voice and choice back.”
Here are the details of what the ballot measure would do:
- Under the open primary system, all candidates for elective office from the state legislative level on up would run on a single ballot, regardless of their party affiliation. The top four vote-getters would advance to the general election.
- In the general election, voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins more than 50% of the first-preference votes, they would be declared the winner. If no candidate reaches that threshold, candidates with the fewest first-preference supporters would be eliminated. The eliminated candidate’s second-choice votes would then go to remaining candidates. The process would continue until one candidate exceeds 50% of the total vote. (This video explains the process in more detail.) Several Colorado cities, including Boulder, use ranked-choice voting for some of their municipal elections.
- Voters would also be asked to eliminate the caucus and assembly ballot-access process used by Democrats and Republicans. Instead, all candidates would have to collect signatures to make the ballot, which can be very expensive in statewide races. To run for governor, for instance, candidates must collect 1,500 voter signatures in each of Colorado’s eight congressional districts. To run for a state Senate or House seat, candidates must collect just 1,000 total signatures.
- Unaffiliated voters would be able to sign candidate petitions, which now may only be signed by members of the candidate’s party.
- Vacancy committees to replace state lawmakers would be eliminated and replaced by special elections when a lawmaker resigns.
The changes would first affect the 2026 election when the offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer and a U.S. Senate seat will be up for grabs.
Getting the measure on the 2024 ballot won’t be easy. Thiry and other supporters of the proposal will have to collect roughly 125,000 voter signatures that represent a sample of at least 2% of voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts. To pass, the measure would then have to be approved by 55% of the electorate because it amends the constitution.
Additionally, Colorado’s 2024 ballot is expected to be crowded with other ballot measures, including ones enshrining abortion access in the state constitution and overhauling the state’s property tax system.
Thiry’s measure is expected to be filed with the state’s Title Board, which determines how measures appear on the ballot, in the next week.
Thiry said the changes would initially be submitted as a single initiative. However, if the Title Board board or courts rule all of the provisions can’t be in one measure, they would be divided into separate ballot questions.
The open-primary and ranked-choice voting system Thiry is proposing for Colorado is similar to one adopted in Alaska in 2020 and first used in that state’s 2022 elections.
The Alaska system helped Democrat Mary Peltola defeat Sarah Palin, the state’s former governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, in the 2022 race for the state’s sole U.S. House seat. It also led to shared governance between Democrats and Republicans in the Alaska state Senate.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski also won reelection in Alaska in 2022 under the new system despite a serious challenger from the right.
“It allowed Lisa Murkowski to vote against her party at the federal level on very intense issues in a world where most senators couldn’t or didn’t,” Thiry said of Alaska’s election system overhaul.
California uses an open-primary system, too, under which only the top two primary vote-getters advance to the general election. In districts that lean heavily to one party or another, that increases the chances of two Republicans or two Democrats competing against each other in the general election.
The switch to ranked-choice voting would require changes in Colorado’s voting systems.
Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a bill in Congress last week to provide up to $40 million in federal grants to cover up to half the costs for states that decide to implement ranked-choice voting. The legislation is unlikely to pass given that Republicans control the House.
A switch to an open primary with a four-candidate general election could significantly weaken the power of the state Democratic and Republican parties in Colorado. But Thiry said it would give voters in legislative or congressional districts dominated by a single party more choices in the general election.
In some of Colorado’s legislative and congressional districts, primary elections are more competitive than the general elections because of the districts’ political demographics.
The election changes are sure to be opposed by the Colorado GOP, which is currently suing to overturn the 2016 change approved by voters allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in partisan primaries. Thiry backed that ballot initiative.
But other elected officials are reacting favorably to the general idea of Thiry’s proposal.
“I’ve always been supportive of the concept of ranked-choice voting,” Democratic Gov. Jared Polis told The Sun. “We just completed our first mayor’s race in Boulder using ranked-choice voting. In talking to my friends and neighbors, it went very smoothly, people understood what they were doing. They got their voice counted, regardless of who their first choice was.”
Polis said he’d wait to see the initiative before taking a formal position on the proposal.
Thiry told The Sun he’s been making the rounds in Colorado’s political circles to try to build support for his measure. But it’s sure to face opposition, including from Assistant House Majority Leader Rose Pugliese, R-Colorado Springs. She led the unsuccessful 2020 campaign to stop Colorado from signing onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
“I’ve never been a fan of ranked-choice voting. I prefer this system that we have in place,” Pugliese said. “Are there tweaks in the system we could make to make the system more efficient?”
Thiry has a successful track record of getting ballot measures changing Colorado’s election processes passed.
In 2016, voters agreed to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in either Democratic or Republican primaries. That effort took effect in 2018, and unaffiliated voters now make up nearly half of the state’s registered voters.
In 2018, Thiry backed two constitutional changes to create independent commissions to redraw boundaries for Congress and the state legislature every 10 years. The two redistricting commission bills were placed on the 2018 ballot by state lawmakers, but Thiry said he didn’t expect that to happen with the election changes.
“Let’s face it, people that have power tend to use the power to keep the power,” he said. “And the leaders of the legislature right now, the leaders of both parties, have a lot of power, including over their members.”
Thiry has contributed nearly $6 million to ballot issue committees in Colorado since May 2016.
He wouldn’t say how much he plans to spend on the 2024 measure. He said Unite America, a national nonprofit based in Denver, and Open Primaries, another national nonprofit, also will support the initiative, as they have in Alaska and elsewhere.
“We’ve got a nice little coalition of nationally oriented groups, looking for opportunities to improve America’s democracy,” Thiry told The Sun. “Within the state … we’re going to develop a tri-partisan coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents.”
Several of those groups are also supporting similar changes in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and other states.
“The policy that we might advocate differs by state,” Thiry said. “In some cases, it will be just what we’re going to do here. In other cases, it’s just open primaries.”
Thiry said he expects voters to respond enthusiastically if the measure or measures make the ballot.
“The polling is significantly stronger than we expected,” he said. “We have been surprised at how many Coloradans … are unhappy about how democracy is breaking.”