Defeated But Unbowed
Despite legislative defeats, Rep. John Kefalas is undaunted

By Seth Anthony
Published May 1st 2007 in The Fort Collins Weekly
Rep. John Kefalas knows a thing or two about close elections. From his nine-vote victory in a 2004 Democratic Party primary to an unexpected win over incumbent Bob McCluskey last November, he’s lived them from every angle.

But his narrow loss in the 2004 general election highlights for Kefalas a major problem with the way Colorado elections are conducted. That year, Libertarian Jassen Bowman was also on the ballot, and no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.

“In ’04, it was a three way race, and McCluskey won in a plurality,” says Kefalas, noting that a third candidate’s presence can mean that nobody knows which of the two front-runners a majority of voters would have preferred. “Majority vote is much better than just plurality.”

That was the notion behind House Bill 1162, one of the first bills Kefalas introduced in January and which he shepherded through the legislature for three months before it died in the House Appropriations Committee last week. The proposal would have created a 13-member task force to study new election methods, including instant runoff voting.

“There’s a solution now to the ‘Nader Problem,’ the ‘Perot Problem,’” says Rick Van Wie, who briefly ran on the Green Party ticket for Secretary of State in 2006, “that will allow people to vote their conscience and not sacrifice their values.”

Van Wie dropped out of the Secretary of State’s race after noticing the race tighten between Democrat Ken Gordon, a supporter of voting reform, and Republican Mike Coffman.

“Even though I was the only candidate running publicly on a platform of reforming the system,” says Van Wie, “it didn’t make any sense for me to ruin the race for something I supported.” Although Gordon never made it to the Secretary of State’s chair, he signed on to Kefalas’ bill as its primary sponsor in the state Senate.

Kefalas’ hope is to avoid situations like the one Van Wie experienced, where candidates and voters shy away from the political process because the present voting system favors major party candidates. His bill started out much more ambitiously, with not only a commission to study voting reforms, but pilot projects which would have let a dozen jurisdictions in Colorado use “advanced voting methods” in 2009 local elections.

Instant-runoff voting, in which voters rank-order candidates in terms of preference, is the most well-known of these voting methods, but Kefalas also wanted the state to examine other options, including approval voting and proportional representation.

“As I’ve studied this issue, I’ve learned that there are a number of advanced voting methods—approval voting, range voting,” says Kefalas. “To do justice to this issue, it behooves us to study a variety of voting methods and determine what might be best for Colorado.”

Van Wie is a proponent of instant runoff voting, but Fort Collins resident Jan Kok, co-founder of the Center for Range Voting, argues passionately that other methods can be even better.

“Approval voting is the simplest—it’s just like a lot of City Councils that already use

“Vote for N number of candidates for at-large seats,” Kok says. Approval voting lets voters cast “approving votes” for multiple candidates in the same race. “It doesn’t require any upgrades to the voting machines, you don’t have to educate the voters.”

The logistical hurdles of switching to new voting systems were a point of contention when HR 1162 was considered by the State, Military and Veteran’s Affairs committee in February. There, it was backed by not only the usual third-party suspects—representatives of the state Green and Libertarian parties, as well as Eric Eidsness, just off his run for Congress as a Reform Party candidate—but also a coalition of public interest groups including FairVote Colorado, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters.

The most vocal opposition to the proposal came from the Colorado Clerk’s Association, who sent Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Scott Doyle to Denver to testify against the bill. Doyle cited the “fiscal burdens” of implementing new voting methods, including reprogramming voting machines.

“As a practical matter, you need to upgrade voting machines in order to handle (instant-runoff voting),” Kok says. “Most vendors aren’t prepared to do that by November 2008.”

The Diebold voting machines currently used by Larimer County and by the city of Fort Collins currently don’t have the appropriate software to tabulate instant-runoff elections, and according to the City Clerk’s office, which has been tracking the issue, no such systems have been certified for use by the Secretary of State.

In order to keep the bill’s momentum alive, Kefalas agreed to jettison the pilot tests, leaving only the proposal to create a study commission.

“I would have liked to see us move forward even more rapidly, but I don’t think it was a terrible compromise to focus on examining the issue,” Kefalas noted.

After clearing one committee hurdle, another loomed—the House Appropriations Committee. Although the revised bill wouldn’t have changed any state policies, the study commission did come with a $25,000 fiscal note—a small price to pay, proponents said, to improve elections.

Supporters of voting reform—including Kefalas himself—banded together and pledged private contributions to offset the cost. By the time the bill appeared before committee, pledges totaled over $13,000, more than half the cost of the study. Even the Secretary of State’s office, under Republican Mike Coffman, had offered to chip in, Kefalas says, by offering “logistical support.”

But in the end, a tight state budget outweighed other considerations, and the Appropriations Committee on Thursday killed the bill—it was “postponed indefinitely,” in legislative language, by a vote of 8-5.

After all his work to steer the bill through committee, Kefalas is barely fazed by the legislative defeat, and plans to move forward with voting reform.

“We will still get the research done, one way or another,” he pledges. “We can perhaps create a hybrid committee and do it on our own.”

A committee independent of the legislature, Kefalas says, can still put forward recommendations. And he plans on introducing legislation in the 2008 legislative session to allow for local use of alternative voting methods.

“There’s a lot of support out there,” Kefalas says. “If we can increase the marketplace of ideas, that just betters the system.”

Other ways to vote

H.R. 1162 would have authorized a study group to investigate “advanced voting methods.” Among those under consideration:

• Instant-runoff voting—Each voter ranks all the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed and those votes are reallocated to voters’ second-place choice. If that doesn’t yield a majority winner, the process is repeated through multiple rounds. Instant-runoff elections are used in Australia and were recently approved in Minneapolis and San Francisco, but may require different voting technologies.

• Approval voting—Each voter votes “yes” or “no” on every candidate, and can vote “yes” on multiple candidates in a single race. The candidate with the most approval votes is elected. Approval voting is not currently used in public elections, but could be implemented with minimal changes in voting technology.

• Range voting—Each voter scores each candidate on a scale such as 1 to 10, or 0 to 99. The scores are added, and the candidate with the highest total score is elected. Approval voting is a special case of range voting with only two choices.

• Proportional representation—Voters vote for a “party list” of candidates, and seats in a legislative body are allocated in proportion to the number of votes for each list. Proportional representation is used for legislative elections in Israel, Iraq and most European parliaments.

—Seth Anthony