The 2019 Colorado Springs city elections are now in the record books. On April 2, John Suthers was easily re-elected mayor, incumbents Tom Strange and Bill Murray also were re-elected to at-large council seats, and former secretary of state Wayne Williams won the third at-large seat. It was an orderly election with a 37% turnout of eligible voters. The results were pretty much as many of us had expected.
So now is the time to ask an intriguing political process question. Were you asked by a candidate, or a candidate’s friend, to cast a “single-shot” for one of the at-large city council candidates? Or did you, all on your own, decide to cast just one vote for just one of the many at-large candidates and let the other two votes go uncast?
In other words, did you cast one vote for a candidate you really liked and wanted to see win?
We are only talking about the at-large city council election. The mayor’s race was a straight-up every voter has one vote and votes for one candidate type of election. There could have been a runoff if Suthers had received less than 50% of the vote. But the popular Suthers got 73% of the vote.
At-large City Council elections are another matter. Every voter could vote for three of the 11 candidates. Most voters cast three votes, but voters with more “defined” political objectives are likely to single-shoot on just one preferred candidate.
Why single-shoot? The logic is simple. If you want your candidate to win, do not give your other two votes to candidates who, in the final tabulation, use those votes to beat your preferred candidate. You lose those two votes, true, but you gain giving your number one choice a better chance to win.
Single-shooting has little or no significance on an individual basis, but if practiced by large numbers of voters it can have an impact on the election outcome. If entire church congregations, or civic clubs, or well-organized interest groups can be motivated to single-shoot on one candidate, for example, it can make a real difference in who wins, particularly if the election is close.
All of this takes place out of public view. Requests to single-shoot for a certain candidate are usually passed around by word of mouth. But if 10 to 20 supporters of a candidate start talking up single-shooting within an organization, the word can get around fast. Because it is a mostly whispered person-to-person technique, it is difficult for political analysts to prove single-shooting is occurring.
A female City Council member several years ago made no attempt to hide her use of single-shots to get elected and re-elected. She said her campaign technique was to speak mainly to women’s groups and have her close friends and supporters pass among the female audience asking for single shots for her. She claimed that, without single shots from women, she would have never been elected, let alone re-elected.
Did single-shooting occur in this most recent at-large city council election? The best sign is 96,227 people voted in the mayor’s race. Every one of those voters had three votes to cast in the at-large City Council race. Three times 96,227 is 288,681. Yet only a total of 255,944 votes were cast in the at-large council race, a difference of 32,737 less.
Some of those missing 32,737 votes were people who voted for mayor and did not bother to vote for at-large council candidates. We speculate, however, that many of the lost votes were the result of intentional single-shooting. Some of it was done by individuals. On the other hand, we think most of the uncast votes were in response to single-shooting campaigns.
We speculate that Wayne Williams, former Colorado secretary of state and former El Paso County clerk and recorder (among other things), came in first by more than 16,000 in part because he was the best known of everyone running for the council. But we also think friendly Republicans, along with his other fans, cast a single-shot for him. We cannot prove this, yet believe it likely.
Most Colorado Springs voters accept the recent election results as valid and probably have no complaints about the election process. But there is one alternative process that could eliminate the single-shooter tendency and may encourage more direct policy debates between candidates. It is called “slotting.”
Instead of all the candidates for three seats running against each other in an unwieldy single election, there would be three separate elections for three “slotted” council seats. They would be slotted seat A, B and C.
Candidates would pick just one of the three seats to run for, and would run against other candidates who picked that race. Since the three races would be different from one another, there would be no point in single-shooting and throwing your other two votes away.
This alternative system would not have changed the outcome of this year’s at-large City Council elections. In addition to ending single-shooting, the case for considering the three-lane, or slotting, alternative is that it would have enriched the level of policy deliberations between candidates. Council candidates this year differed on issues and emphasized their different experiences and backgrounds. But they seldom confronted one another on policy matters — in part because every voter has three votes, and you do not want to attack a candidate a voter is thinking of voting for along with you.
A final point. With slotted A, B, and C at-large council races, there could be a runoff election in each of the three elections if no candidate got 50% of the vote, as is done in the mayoral election.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.