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If voters adopt ranked choice voting, Colorado may prevent it from taking effect

Last-minute provisions added to an elections bill would create a major barrier
Voters cast their ballots at Augustana Lutheran Church on Nov. 8 in Denver. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America, file)

If Colorado voters decide in November to pass a ballot measure making big changes to the way the state’s elections are conducted, it may be years before they go into effect – if ever.

That’s because of a last-minute amendment added to a broad bipartisan election bill awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature. The provisions would create a major barrier to a proposal to alter Colorado’s primaries so candidates of all parties run against each other, with the top four vote-getters advancing to a ranked choice general election.

Now, proponents of the election overhaul, who were unaware of the big hurdles created by Senate Bill 210 until they were contacted this week by The Colorado Sun, are demanding that Polis veto the legislation. County clerks and opponents of the voting changes are demanding that he sign it.

Amid the growing pressure campaign, the governor won’t say whether he will sign or veto the measure, which would require ranked-choice voting to be tested in 12 municipalities before it could be used statewide. He has until June 7 to decide.

“The governor is reviewing the final version of the bill,” said Shelby Wieman, a spokesperson for Polis.

The future of Colorado’s voting process hangs in the balance. So does the rest of what’s in Senate Bill 230, which election officials say is necessary to safeguard state election workers.

Kent Thiry, former CEO of the dialysis giant DaVita, has given at least $5.9 million to Colorado ballot measures since 2011, according to a Kaiser Health News review of Colorado campaign finance data. (Rachel Woolf for KHN)

Colorado Voters First, the group pushing for the election system changes, is spearheaded by Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita. For years he has used his deep pockets to fund ballot initiatives, including ones aimed at tamping down on partisanship by letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in partisan primaries and taking redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature.

Colorado Voters First intends to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to change how Colorado’s primaries are conducted and adopt ranked choice general elections, similar to what’s used in Alaska. The changes would go into effect in 2026. The overhaul would diminish the power of the two major political parties, which are chafing at the changes.

In ranked choice voting elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins more than 50% of the first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If no candidate reaches that threshold, candidates with the fewest first-preference supporters are eliminated. The process continues until one candidate exceeds 50% of the total vote.

County clerks across the state have warned that they are unprepared for the overhaul and expressed anxiety about how the ballot measure could affect their ability to follow other state and federal election laws. They worked on the amendment in Senate Bill 210 delaying implementation of open primary system and ranked choice general elections alongside a group called Coloradans for Accurate and Secure Elections, a consortium of mainly progressive organizations opposed to the Colorado Voters First proposal.

The provisions would require a dozen Colorado municipalities in counties of a certain size and with a specific demographic makeup to conduct ranked choice elections before a ranked choice election could be used in a race for state or federal office. Additionally, Colorado could not move to the new primary system proposed by Colorado Voters First until that requirement has been met.

The House of Representatives chamber in the State Capitol on Jan. 24 in Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

Finally, the amendment would require the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to produce a report on how ranked choice voting went in the municipalities and present its findings to the Legislature.

Only a handful of cities and towns in Colorado – including Boulder, Fort Collins and Telluride – currently use ranked choice voting in their municipal elections. Voter approval would be required before the change is adopted in some communities. That means it would likely be 2028 or 2030 at the earliest before the new primary system and ranked choice voting could be used in state and federal elections.

The clauses were added in a two-page amendment to Senate Bill 210 adopted on the Sunday before the end of the state’s legislative session on May 8. There was no debate on the amendment, which was offered on the Colorado House floor by state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s main sponsors.

“This amendment was worked out with several of our (county) clerks to ensure that as new voting methods are implemented in different types of elections we have a good amount of data to analyze to ensure we’re not undermining Coloradans’ confidence in our elections and that voters understand their ballots,” Sirota said on the House floor.

The amendment was introduced, explained and passed within a minute.

“These last-minute antics are what voters hate about politics,” said Amber McReynolds, an elections expert who is part of Colorado’s Voters First. “Communities across Colorado have already approved and used ranked choice voting in elections, and our fantastic clerks have systems in place to run and audit those contests. Using ranking systems simply gives voters more choice, and does not substantively change the way votes are processed.”

She said the way the amendment was adopted – with no chance for public input during a legislative committee – “begs for a veto.”

Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Colorado Voters First, went so far as to allege that the amendment was akin to Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Voters enter Augustana Lutheran Church to cast their ballots Nov. 8, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America, file)

“Anyone who was – rightly – outraged by Trump’s efforts to overturn an election after the fact should be disgusted with this front-loaded attempt to undermine the will of the voters,” he said.

Matt Crane, who leads the nonpartisan Colorado County Clerks Association, said his organization worked on and supported the amendment. He said it’s smart policy for ranked choice voting to be tested on the municipal level before it’s adopted statewide. (Only Alaska and Maine conduct all statewide elections using ranked choice voting.)

“Anytime that you are going to make a seismic change to an election model, it’s a bad idea to do it without understanding all the impacts of it,” he said. “We just aren’t there with rank choice voting. Will it create broader voter confusion? Does it have a suppressing effect on people of color and the seniors?”

He added: “We like to be on the cutting edge. We just don’t want to be on the bleeding edge.”

Crane said if support for ranked choice voting is as broad as its supporters say it is, it shouldn’t be difficult to get the system adopted in towns and cities across Colorado. He added that because Senate Bill 210 would make a change to state law, the Legislature could come back next year and strip out the statutory hurdles should voters overwhelmingly back the ballot measure on open primaries and ranked choice voting.

“As clerks, we don’t care about who wins,” Crane said. “We just care about who’s participating. Ranked choice, this movement is designed to change who wins.”

Crane said if the governor were to veto Senate Bill 210, which is 42 pages long, a laundry list of other provisions meant to improve the state’s election system would be collateral damage, including clauses protecting local elections officials from conspiracy theorists, improving safety for presidential electors and shielding county clerks from nuisance public records requests.

“It’s a critically important elections bill in an election year,” Sirota, one of the bill’s main sponsors, said in an interview Thursday.

She rejected the idea that the way the amendment was passed was inappropriate. She said the bill arrived in the House late in the session, crossing over to the chamber from the Senate on May 1 after it was first introduced April 17.

And, she said, the ranked choice voting provision is “a totally fair way to ensure if the voters pass a ballot measure that it is rolled out in a methodical way.” Sirota said the provision would force the rollout of ranked choice voting to be akin to how Colorado adopted its universal mail ballot system.

“I’m getting pretty tired of the uber-wealthy among us just throwing their money around and the impact on Colorado’s public be damned,” she said, referring to Thiry.

The Legislature has passed other bills in recent years aimed at affecting ballot measures.

In 2021, lawmakers passed a bipartisan measure kneecapping a ballot measure seeking to cut property taxes. This year, the Legislature approved a bill aiming to neuter the effects of a possible November ballot measure requiring voter approval for new government fees.

Colorado Voters First still has a ways to go before it gets a measure on the November ballot. It must collect about 125,000 voter signatures by Aug. 5 to qualify. The group also hasn’t settled yet on which measure to pursue as two of its proposals are being reviewed by the Colorado Supreme Court.

But because of Thiry’s deep pockets, it’s widely assumed that it will land a measure on the November ballot.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.