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Polis signs bill that thwarts statewide ranked choice voting

Governor faced pressure to veto the bill after last-minute provisions were added
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks May 24 during a ceremony outside the Governor’s mansion in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed into law a bill that includes a provision that will delay statewide ranked choice voting from taking effect in Colorado – possibly indefinitely – even if voters approve the change in November.

Polis faced pressure to veto the measure, Senate Bill 210, after The Colorado Sun first reported last week on the clause, which was an eleventh hour amendment.

In a signing statement, Polis said Thursday that if voters approve a ballot measure adopting statewide ranked choice voting in Colorado, “the language in the bill will not be the starting point for implementation.”

“It will be essential to reconcile the bill with the measure and to take prompt and good faith actions to successfully implement the will of the voters, and we are committed to doing so,” he said.

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and main sponsor of the bill, and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, vowed to “work in good faith to uphold the will and intent of the voters on a practicable timeline.”

Fenberg, however, is departing the Legislature because he is term-limited. And ultimately it will be up to the 100 lawmakers who make up the General Assembly, not the governor or the speaker alone, to decide how to react should the ballot measure pass in November.

A group called Colorado Voters First, spearheaded by Kent Thiry, the former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita, intends to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to change 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. That’s similar to what’s now used in Alaska.

But on Sunday, four days before the legislative session ended on May 8, a two-page amendment was added to Senate Bill 210 requiring 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, the amendment said that Colorado could not move to the new primary system proposed by Colorado Voters First until that requirement has been met.

Finally, the amendment, offered by state Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, requires 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.

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

County clerks across the state have warned that they are unprepared to implement the Colorado Voters First proposal and have 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 alongside a group called Coloradans for Accurate and Secure Elections, a consortium of mainly progressive organizations opposed to the Colorado Voters First proposal.

The clerks and Coloradans for Accurate and Secure Elections were urging the governor to sign the measure, especially given what else was in Senate Bill 210, including protections for county clerks and presidential electors against conspiracies and threats. The measure was 42 pages long.

In a written statement, the Colorado County Clerks Association thanked Polis for signing the bill and said the law “ensures our election officials and processes are more secure and better prepared heading into this important election year.”

“County clerks do not take a position on citizen ballot initiatives. The clerks remain committed to bringing forth our election expertise to any conversation that would reform our nationally recognized election model,” the statement said. “If all system requirements are in place and voters pass the 2024 citizen ballot initiative regarding RCV and all candidate primaries, implementation of the initiative duly passed by the people of Colorado can be done by 2028.”

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.

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)

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 under Senate Bill 210 as it was signed into law.

Colorado Voters First still has a way 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 after submitting several versions to state elections officials for review.

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

For years Thiry has used his personal wealth 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 this week launched an ad campaign pointing to the last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 210 as one of the reasons statewide ranked choice voting is needed.

“We’re disappointed with today’s outcome, but we know whose side voters are on,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesperson for Colorado Voters First. “We will continue fighting – in the courts, across the state, and at the ballot box – for the rights of any voter to vote in any election and for the citizens initiative process.”

Polis said in his statement that he thinks statewide ranked choice voting could be implemented in Colorado by 2028.

“To facilitate ongoing dialogue, in the event a ballot measure on RCV and all candidate primaries is passed by Colorado voters and to ensure its prompt and successful implementation notwithstanding language in this bill, I will issue an executive order, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to convene local election officials, voting rights organizations, legislators from both parties, and initiative proponents to map out a process for implementing this initiative as soon as practicable,” Polis wrote.

Fenberg and McCluskie didn’t make that same 2028 commitment, writing in their statement that the Legislature would work to implement it “on a practicable timeline, while taking into account the very real and legitimate implementation issues identified by our local election administrators.”

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 two bills with clauses aiming to neuter the effects of a possible November ballot measure requiring voter approval for new government fees.

One of those two bills was Senate Bill 210, and the provision affecting the fee measure was added through an amendment also quickly passed on the Sunday before the 2024 legislative session ended. Sirota said she offered it at the governor’s request.

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