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Kent Thiry’s proposal to overhaul Colorado’s election system has Democrats and Republicans skeptical

The opposition runs the gamut, from concerns about unfairness to people with disabilities to questions about how the change would benefit wealthy candidates
An El Paso County ballot drop off box in the parking lot of the Boot Barn Hall at Bourbon Brothers in Colorado Springs on Oct. 31, 2021. (Julia Fennell/Colorado Newsline)

If there’s one thing that unites Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Shad Murib, Colorado GOP Chairman Dave Williams and Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, it’s their shared skepticism of the election system overhaul being proposed by Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita.

Each dislikes the proposal, which would move Colorado to an open primary system and adopt ranked choice voting in general elections, for different reasons. Thiry also wants to do away with Colorado’s caucus and assembly process and stop vacancy committees from filling legislative openings. The changes would be made through a 2024 ballot measure – or measures – amending the state constitution and take effect in 2026.

Boebert said on social media that “ranked choice voting is a scheme launched by well-moneyed interests who are only concerned with their own power and not giving Coloradans a choice at the ballot box.”

Williams responded to The Sun in a text message.

“Self-serving rich liberals shouldn’t be able to buy their way onto a ballot and manipulate democracy with deceptive marketing,” he wrote. “Thiry wants to be governor and validate his ego by spending his massive wealth to change the rules of the game so he can have a better chance at winning.”

In an interview with The Sun, Murib echoed Williams’ concerns. He said Thiry’s proposal, in particular the ditching the caucus and assembly ballot-access process altogether for signature gathering, which can be highly expensive, would “create a pay-to-play system for elected office in Colorado where only the wealthy millionaires and billionaires and self-funders would have access to elected office in Colorado.” For instance, Republican secretary of state candidate Pam Anderson spent more than $121,000 to collect the 8,000 voter signatures she needed to make the ballot in 2022.

But Thiry framed his proposals to The Sun as a way to elect less extreme candidates to office. A spokesman said Thiry doesn’t plan to run for office. (The governor’s office will be up for grabs in 2026.)

“Kent has led five successful ballot initiatives in Colorado since 2016, and some version of ‘will he run for governor?’ has been asked at every turn,” Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Thiry, said in an email. (Hubbard has served as an adviser to The Colorado Sun but has no influence over editorial decisions.) “It was not the case then, and it’s not the case now. He supports these initiatives because we need to break the stranglehold party insiders have on our elections by giving all voters and candidates equal access.”

But state Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat who uses a wheelchair after being injured in an Army helicopter crash in Afghanistan, worries that Thiry’s proposal would make getting on the ballot less accessible for people like himself. Collecting signatures often means going door to door or standing for long periods of time outside grocery stores or at farmers markets and parks.

The caucus and assembly process, Ortiz said, “is the only accessible way for candidates with a disability to get on the ballot.”

Ortiz said he’ll propose legislation at the Capitol next year that would protect the caucus process under accessibility laws. He said his proposal also will require virtual access to a caucus or assembly if a candidate or participant requests it.

Ortiz said, however, that he likes the idea of Colorado adopting ranked choice voting.

Murib, too, said he isn’t opposed to some changes to Colorado’s elections system.

“I love unaffiliated participation in our politics,” he said. “We need to rethink our caucus process. I think we need to rethink how high a threshold it is to get signatures across the state because it really blocks off grassroots candidates.”

But he said he’d like to see more cities in Colorado try out ranked choice voting or other alternatives before the system is adopted statewide.

Implementing such a complicated system before the 2026 election is also worrisome to county clerks. Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said some studies indicate ranked choice voting may confuse voters and discourage people of color and seniors from casting ballots.

“Traditionally, we’ve been very skeptical of ranked choice voting,” Crane said.

And Frank Atwood, chairman of Colorado’s Approval Voting Party, said he wants to see an election system where voters may fill in a bubble for every candidate on the ballot that they approve of, with the highest total vote-getter winning.

“The thing about approval voting is the transparency and the ease of it,” Atwood said. “It’s far less complicated” than ranked choice voting.

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to comment on Thiry’s proposals.

The proposal details and future actions

Three versions of Thiry’s proposal were filed last week. The designated proponents are listed as Charles Dukes, a Commerce City councilman, and Roberta Lynn Moreland, who worked on the ranked choice voting system Fort Collins will begin using next year.

Here’s what each would do:

  • Initiative 98 would move Colorado to an open primary system in the races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, legislature, state Board of Education, and University of Colorado regent. In each race, all candidates would appear on the same primary ballot regardless of their party affiliation. The top four vote-getters would advance to a general election that would be conducted by ranked choice voting. The measure would also require that all candidates for those offices collect petition signatures to make the ballot, as opposed to going through the caucus and assembly process. Unaffiliated voters would be allowed to sign those petitions. Vacancy committees would no longer be used to fill legislative seats – instead there would be a special election.
  • Initiative 99 would do everything that Initiative 98 does while also moving Colorado’s presidential general election to a ranked choice voting election.
  • Initiative 100 would only enact the open primary system for the races described in Initiative 98 and switch all of those general elections to ranked choice voting. It would not affect the presidential contest. This measure wouldn’t affect how candidates make the ballot (the caucus and assembly process would still be allowed and unaffiliated voters would still be barred from signing candidate petitions) and it wouldn’t eliminate legislative vacancy committees.

Each measure would also declare that “it is the intent of the people of Colorado that all votes lawfully cast are counted before 11:59 p.m. on Election Day, and when not reasonably possible, as soon as is practicable.”

The initiatives would let county clerks begin counting ballots as soon as they receive them – right now counting can’t start until 15 days before Election Day – and direct local election officials to “use all reasonable efforts, including requesting sufficient staff and resources, to foster the timely reporting of election results beginning at 7 p.m. on Election Day.”

“The General Assembly shall provide the necessary funding so that counties have adequate staffing, systems and technology to timely complete the counting and reporting of election results,” the initiatives declare.

It’s rare that counties complete vote tabulation on election night. And there’s an eight-day period during which voters are allowed to rectify signature differences and overseas ballots are accepted.

The measures are still a long way from appearing on the 2024 ballot.

Legislative staff are set to give feedback on the proposals at a hearing at 10 a.m. Dec. 5 to start the review process.

Skeptics of the proposal think the initiatives may violate a rule in the state constitution limiting ballot measures to dealing with a single subject.

Assuming the initiatives are ultimately approved by the state Title Board, Thiry and other supporters of the proposals must 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 qualify.

Then, to pass, the measures would have to be approved by 55% of the electorate because they seek to amend the constitution.

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