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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

It’s time to change mayoral elections in Denver

The 16-candidate Denver mayoral experiment exposed many weaknesses in the electoral process of our state’s largest city. From poor timing to low turnout, the current system did not serve either the city or the region well. It is time for a change.

The population of Denver is just under 700,000 (though the official census in 2020 was 717,000). Of that, only about 524,000 are registered voters (453,000 are active voters) and just a fraction of that showed up at the polls on April 4.

There were only about 173,000 overall votes cast in the mayoral race and the top vote getter, Mike Johnston, garnered less than a quarter of those (42,273 or 24.45%). That means just over 6% of Denverites voted for the leading candidate to run their city next year.

That is grim.

It is also the outcome of a combination of factors. First and foremost, the timing of the election is terrible. Holding an early April, off-year election is always going to end with low turnout numbers. For starters, people do not pay attention until they receive a seemingly surprise ballot.

Working on a campaign this cycle, I found that lack of attention true of both the general populace and the press. Much of it is attributable to simple calendar consequences. Last fall electoral attention was rightly focused on statewide, congressional and legislative campaigns. That took us through early November. Follow-up stories predominated for another two to three weeks. Then Thanksgiving arrived followed by Christmas and New Year’s.

Before all but a handful of folks were really paying attention, we were in the middle of January. To put that in perspective, it would be like not reporting on a presidential race until roughly the August before an election. That seems impossibly short, but it is exactly what happened. Only a few stories were published before mid-January, mostly whenever someone new put their name in the ring.

Of course, that emphasizes a secondary problem. The sheer number of candidates in the race. With 17 people on the ballot (Kwame Spearman didn’t drop out until mid-March), plus a handful of write-ins, to cover in a compressed time period, it became an impossible task. Many reporters felt paralyzed between trying to provide fair coverage time to every campaign and focusing on the top contenders.

And voters had the same problem.

When 9News attempted to whittle the field down for its second televised debate via polling data, it found no candidate received more than 5% and a whopping 58% were “undecided” — though “without enough information” about any candidate would have been a better characterization. That debate still featured 11 candidates on stage just as ballots were mailed out to voters. Over a two-hour debate, that meant an average of less than 10 minutes per candidate after moderator speaking times were subtracted.

Solutions? I like some of what Kent Thiry proposed just before the elections.

Specifically, he suggested moving the election date to coincide with even-year, fall elections and implementing ranked-choice voting. The former would both boost turnout (63.52% of eligible voters participated in the 2022 fall election, six months before this April’s) and lower costs since Denver could coordinate its ballot.

Where I diverge with Thiry is on making it harder to access the ballot and holding a one-time-only, winner-take-all election, instant-runoff election.

As I have written before, I am a fan of the Alaska model. It holds a nonpartisan, ranked-choice primary from which the top four candidates proceed. The winner is decided by ranked choice in the fall.

Here in Denver, that could look like a 17-person primary to coincide with our even-year primary elections at the end of June from which four people would emerge to battle it out for just over four months through Election Day. It would be more diverse and allow better coverage.

For example, the four candidates from this year would be the current runoff candidates Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough, the liberal firebrand Lisa Calderon, and either the Republican Andy Rouget or progressive Leslie Herod depending on how second choices played out.

Four months covering either foursome would be far more beneficial for Denver than what we got this cycle.

There are obviously obstacles that would need to be overcome. For one, moving the election date would also move the date of inauguration. But the benefit seems worth the cost. Denver deserves better than it got this year. Its people should demand a change.

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