Third time’s a charm

Singer proposes approval voting bill at start of legislative session

Angela K. Evans | Boulder Weekly

On Wednesday, Jan. 11, the 2017 Colorado State legislative session began in Denver and with it came a proposed draft bill from Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont). The bill would give jurisdictions the option to use approval voting methods in nonpartisan elections. This will be Singer’s third attempt to get such legislation passed.

The concept is simple: “Vote for as many candidates as you like, the candidate with the most votes win,” Singer says. “It’s a very positive way of voting.”

The bill would allow voters to check as many candidates as they like in races where political affiliations aren’t on the ballot, such as city councils and school boards. But the law would not require any jurisdictions to use such methods.

“I believe that the current system is not creating a system that gives people faith in our government,” Singer says, citing the frustration many voters felt during the 2016 presidential election. “Maybe if people felt like they had more choices, they’d have more faith in our electoral process.”

Singer first started thinking about different voting options when running as one of six candidates for two at-large seats in the 2009 Longmont City Council election.

“I came to the conclusion that if I stayed in that race, I was going to split the vote among some people that I agreed with and all of us would lose,” he says.

So he dropped out, becoming state representative in 2012. Since then, he’s been working on various versions of an approval voting bill. The last unsuccessful attempt was in 2014.

Despite bipartisan sponsorship, as well as support from Greens, Libertarians and several nonpartisan organizations, the 2014 bill failed to get out of the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, killed by Democrats, not one of whom voted for the measure. Critics argue approval voting could confuse voters, be ineffective in contested elections and could result with the victory of second-choice candidates.

But Paul Tiger, author of Singer’s legislation and executive director of Approval Voting for Colorado, explains it a different way.

“It’s a party killer, really,” he says. “It takes control away from the parties.”

Like Singer, he thinks current voter sentiment toward the political process could help the bill this year.

“There’s lots of people who have never thought about anything but plurality voting,” Tiger says. “I just want people to open their minds and start thinking about how to change how the republic works and maybe there’s a different system that people will like.”

Approval voting is just one of several alternative voting methods. Other systems include ranked choice voting, instant runoff voting and score voting, all of which allow voters to assign certain weight to each candidate in succession. Ranked choice voting is already being used in mayoral elections in both Basalt and Telluride. But Singer and Tiger agree: These systems are more mathematically complicated, would require new election technology and are more difficult to audit.

Nevertheless, Singer says any alternative voting method could be worth a shot.

“In my world, the bill may change this year. I may just say local jurisdictions that wish to use alternative voting methods just have to do so with the guidance of the Secretary of State’s office,” Singer says.

Currently, approval voting is used by the Libertarian Party of Colorado, the University of Colorado Boulder to nominate top posts and the CU student government, according to Tiger. Colorado would be the first state to approve legislation regarding approval voting, should the bill pass.

“Just like the states are the laboratories of the nation, our local county, city and special districts are sort of the laboratories of the state,” Singer says. “So if there’s a system that works we should let our local governments exercise their own local control to put this into place.”

Singer knows it’s an experiment, but if it goes well, he hopes approval voting will spread to statewide elections and potentially even into partisan races.

Singer and the supporters of the approval voting bill are currently seeking Senate sponsorship to move the proposition forward.

The bill is filed with the legislative number 17-0608, and now has been introduced as HB 17-1281. 

  • Bob in Amherst NH

    When you think about it, Approval Voting makes *so* much more sense than plurality voting. it’s impossible to have plurality voting without running into a situation where your perception of who you think has a chance of winning prevents you from voting for who you think would actually do the best job. Approval voting eliminates that giant flaw and allows people to elect the best candidate.

    • So he dropped out, becoming state representative in 2012. Since then, he’s been working on various versions of an approval voting bill. The last unsuccessful attempt was in 2014.

  • Bill

    Other systems include ranked choice voting, instant runoff voting

    Those are the same thing. There are actually many systems that use ranked ballots, but the term “Ranked Choice Voting” almost always refers to Instant-Runoff Voting, or IRV. Other ranked systems are Condorcet, Borda, etc.

    IRV is a very flawed system that produces bizarre results and doesn’t allow voters to vote honestly.

    Ranked choice voting is already being used in mayoral elections in both Basalt and Telluride. But Singer and Tiger agree: These systems are more mathematically complicated, would require new election technology and are more difficult to audit.

    IRV is complicated, yes.

    Score and Approval are not complicated at all. In Approval voting:
    1. Vote for any candidates that you could tolerate winning
    2. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins.

    The ballot would be almost identical to the existing ballot.

    In Score voting:
    1. Give give each candidate a score, like 5 for “Strongly support” or 0 for “Strongly oppose”.
    2. Add up all the scores for each candidate, and whoever gets the most wins.

    This would require different ballots, though, with multiple bubbles next to each name, but it lets you honestly express your support or opposition to different candidates.

    • Not_NORML

      RCV is IRV by a different name. Neither Basalt and Telluride have actually had a reason to employ IRV, because there have to be more than 2 candidates to be useful. That’s also true of Approval Voting. There has to be a field of candidates.

      AV requires a singular and simple printing change. From “Vote for No More Than One” to “Vote for One or More”. Nothing else on the ballot changes from plurality. The layout is exactly the same.
      Ranked voting changes the layout of the ballot. I find it darn confusing. I am reminded of the Florida ‘butterfly ballot’ with lines and circles and arrows. Barf!
      Score Voting requires either a similar change (spinning mess) or that the voter write numbers on the ballot.
      Since the passage of HR3295 the Help America Vote Act – a GWB creation, paper ballot systems use ‘mark sense’. The voter fills in boxes or ovals with a pen. The scanners see which oval was filled. Both legally and technologically impossible to have voters writing on ballots (other than fill the box).

      KISMIF = Keep it simple, make it fun. That’s what scout master think about when programming activities for boy scouts. Why bother growing up to use plurality voting? Few seem to be happy with that.

      • Bill

        You can’t be serious. Ranked and Score ballots are not confusing. You literally just fill in one oval next to each candidate.

        It’s the tallying methods that are confusing. Making a ranked system that works well requires very complicated algorithms (Schulze method), which will never be accepted by the average Joe, while making a Score system that works well is very simple and understandable by everyone.

        Yes, Approval is simple. Too simple. Other systems are demonstrably better.

        Also, with Approval, what’s to stop voting booth volunteers from filling in the bubbles for their favorite candidates on ballots that didn’t fill them in?

        • Not_NORML

          That’s a nice layout, and can be scanned by mark sense. My mom voted in one of those crazy Boulder elections with 14 candidates for four seats. She studied the candidates and made an ordered list. Then her ballot showed up and said vote for 4 only. She could have scored that too.
          Let’s consider the same election as AV with multiple winners. All the seats are filled by those receiving the highest number of votes. The score method does the same, but a bit more complex for the voter.
          What if voters don’t want to score? Force them – that’s the answer, of course.
          what’s to stop voting booth volunteers from filling in the bubbles
          Along with forcing voters to balance all of their choices, we also give lots of time. Colorado has Mail Ballots.
          Ballot fraud and error happen at the clerk’s office during scan and tally. It can’t happen in a precinct because the voter puts his/her ballot in a locked box. But only provisional voters get to do that.

  • Charles Manson

    One of the best things about Singer’s bill is that its not force. Longmont has had some caustic nasty races filled with money and partisan politics. The city has an interest in AV for 3 candidate mayoral races and 5 candidate ward races. These contests get party backing. Supposedly non-partisan, they’re not. Longmont has an interest to squelch the dirty games. It’s obvious to council members that AV would do that.
    Singer’s bill sets the rules so places like Longmont could use it voluntarily. And they’d like to try. Without the law, they can’t even try.

    Why bother? We’ve been doing the same thing the same way for over a century and continue to love the outcome, right? Or we’ve actually gone insane.

  • Charles Manson

    Wow! Score voting and IRV are already law in CO. Passed in 2008.

    • Bill

      Where are they used?

  • Alex Jago

    I hope this passes. For single-winner contests, pretty much any system is better and more respectful of voter choice than plurality.

    Note: for multiple-winner elections, ranked-choice methods are probably more straightforward to make proportional than score methods — or at least, there are already time-tested implementations of ranked-choice proportional methods.
    (And it is necessary to make it proportional, otherwise you get situations where all the candidates of one party do slightly better than everybody else and take all the seats.)

  • This article says the approval voting bill is House Bill 17-0608. This bill number does not exist. What is the correct number of Rep. Singer’s bill?

    • Angela Evans Here is the draft legislation.

      • Thank you for clearing this up. I see LLS 17-0608 is the Legislative Legal Services (LLS) tracking number for the draft; not a bill number, as reported.