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The Steamboat Pilot

Our View: Primary runoff system needed
Sunday, August 15, 2004

There are still provisional ballots to sort out, but it appears that Greg Walcher, Colorado's former natural resources chief, will be the Republican nominee for the 3rd Congressional District. On Tuesday night, Walcher emerged from a five-way race with 32 percent of the vote, 285 votes ahead of state Rep. Matt Smith, who netted 31 percent. Smith has not conceded, noting there are hundreds of provisional ballots throughout the 29-county district still to be reviewed and counted.

Provisional ballots are those submitted by voters who did not have identification, whose voter registration could not be verified or who encountered some other problem at the polls. For two weeks after the election, election officials review such ballots and count those that prove to be valid.

Theoretically, that process could push Smith into the lead or, more likely, trigger a recount. But historically, the person who netted the most votes on election night retains the lead even after such recounts. And preliminary indications show the counting of provisional ballots has widened Walcher's lead.

Chances are Walcher will remain the Republican nominee.

But is Walcher really the people's choice? A plurality of the voters in the Republican primary chose him, but a majority chose Smith or one of the other three candidates.

Walcher got 15,381 votes and Smith received 15,106. The other three candidates -- Gregg Rippy, Dan Corsentino and Matt Aljanich -- received 17,834 votes combined. The unknown, of course, is how those nearly 18,000 votes would be disbursed if a runoff between Walcher and Smith were held at the end of the month. Twelve states require such runoffs to ensure candidates win a minimum percentage of the total vote in a primary before being elected to represent the party in the general election.

But most states, including Colorado, do not have a runoff system. As a result, electing party nominees who receive only a plurality of the vote is not uncommon. According to an analysis of congressional elections by The Center for Voting and Democracy, a Maryland-based non-profit that advocates for fair elections, 214 U.S. House primaries and 29 U.S. Senate primaries in the election years from 1994 to 2002 were decided by plurality and not a majority of voters.

The Center for Voting and Democracy advocates an "instant runoff" system where voters select a first and second choice at the ballot. Under the system, if no candidate receives 50 percent of the first-place votes, the second-place votes of the candidate who finished last are distributed until someone reaches 50 percent. Utah's Republican party used the system for its primaries earlier this year, and the city of San Francisco plans to use the system for its mayoral and City Council election in November.

We're not suggesting that Greg Walcher should not be the Republican nominee for the 3rd Congressional District. By all accounts, he is a strong candidate whom many picked to win the primary. But wouldn't the Republican Party and the district's voters be better served if Colorado had a runoff system in place, whether that's an instant system or a second election between the top two finishers? Wouldn't the Republican Party want to be sure Walcher is its man?

The upcoming congressional election is critical. For the first time in more than a decade, Western Colorado will elect a new representative to Congress and the Democratic Party is solidified behind a formidable candidate in state Rep. John Salazar. With the stakes this high, it's a shame that the Republican Party could enter the election with a candidate who may not be the party's first choice.

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