Littleton’s Frank Atwood, left, chair of the Approval Voting Party, signs official papers at The Villager’s office to officially transform the organization into what is called a “qualified political organization,” the first step toward being recognized as a minor party in Colorado. Mike Spalding, the party’s treasurer, and Vice Chair Blake Huber await their turns.Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
After some five decades as an American voter, Littleton’s Frank Atwood thinks he has found the perfect analogy for today’s one-voter, one-vote system.
“Too often you come out of the polling booth needing to take a shower—and depending on who the candidates are, even a longer shower,” the political activist said. “But at least with approval voting, you could vote for both who you really like and who it was necessary to vote for, and feel that you didn’t have to take as long of a shower.”
Approval voting—the more-cleansing idea of an elector being allowed to vote for as many candidates as he likes in a given race—has been Atwood’s passion for years. It is a concept that has been tried everywhere from Greece to Massachusetts to the United Nations
The idea being that checking off every hopeful one “approves” eliminates the scourge of third-party “spoilers,” offers viability to nontraditional candidates, and empowers electors to both vote their conscience and make a reasoned “compromise” vote.
In other words, why just vote for the lesser of two evils when you can also support your chosen idealist—just in case—without “throwing away your vote,” as is often charged.
And just like a regular election, the candidate with the most votes wins.
“There might also, for the candidates, be more civility as they attempt to not antagonize potential crossover voters by trashing their opponent,” Atwood reasoned.
Approval voting to the rescue. After signing official papers at The Villager, party members headed downtown to turn in them in to Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
The former Libertarian and Republican feels so strongly about this kind of reform that last year he made an example of himself as the nominee for U.S. president of the Approval Voting Party, the kind of candidate on which virtually no one would waste their “one vote”—and certainly not Atwood, who did not even vote for himself.
That decidedly losing campaign, as the candidate readily admits, was more of a commercial for the approval-voting concept than it was even a quixotic presidential run.
“That got arranged at a Rockies game between my lawyer and the secretary of state. The two of them met for 20 minutes,” Atwood said.
Too minor to be a minor party
The ad hoc run for president was just the first step for Atwood, who chairs the nascent Approval Voting Party—an allegiance so embryonic that it was not even an official political party last year when the average voter skimmed past Atwood’s name.
That may be about to change, at least the part about not being a real political party.
On Dec. 13, Atwood, along with the would-be party’s Vice Chair Blake Huber and its Treasury Secretary Mike Spalding came to The Villager’s office to sign the official papers to create the Approval Voting Party, registering it as a “qualified political organization,” the first step on the road to becoming a minor party in Colorado.
To do that—placing Approval Voting among the ranks of the Libertarian, Green and American Constitution parties—the “qualified political organization” must run a candidate for state office, which it intends to do next year, perhaps for governor or secretary of state. It must then talk 1,000 people into registering to vote as Approval Voting Party members.
Unlike most political parties, this one would be less focused on ideology than on reform of the voting process itself. But Huber, who was Atwood’s 2016 running mate, says even that emphasis would be symbolic of a kind of ideological platform.
“We’re locked up. We want to be free. We want to vote our conscience,” he said.
Huber points to last week’s contentious special election in Alabama as a case in point for how approval voting could be particularly useful, especially with a margin of victory even smaller than the number of disenfranchised write-in votes.
“How many people didn’t vote for one of the two traditional parties, and how many votes could have flipped the election one way or the other?” he said. “If we had approval voting, people who voted write-in wouldn’t have counted against either one of the traditional parties.”
Lobbying for ‘approval’
Meanwhile, Atwood, Huber and Spalding have been lobbying state lawmakers on legislation to enable local governments to utilize approval voting. Huber expects a bill to be introduced next year that would instruct the Colorado secretary of state to create guidelines for municipalities and special districts that choose to incorporate approval voting. For the time being, counties are not expected to be a part of the discussion.
“We don’t know what the unintended consequences of approval voting might be, so we want to start small. So, when we go statewide or nationwide, we’ll have a system that actually works and does what we intended it to,” Huber said.
Under Colorado law, home-rule cities already have wide leeway in conducting elections. Atwood, who serves on the Littleton Election Commission, has been working to implement the concept in his hometown, which already uses a form of approval voting in its contests for at-large City Council.
Atwood also points to the City of Centennial, which applied a variation on approval voting to elect the 21 members of its Charter Commission from a slate of 35 candidates.
“So here in Arapahoe County, we’ve got the capability of handling multiple winners,” he said.
As a commission member, Atwood would be prohibited, per the Littleton City Charter, from running as a nominee for office next year.
If approval voting takes off, Spalding sees it as ultimately the most honest way to assess unfettered voter preferences, even if Approval Voting Party candidates fail to catch fire.
“We get to see what voters really want,” he said. “Maybe everybody wants the Libertarians in office, but they’re worried about the Republican or Democrat getting in.”
Spalding, vice chairman of the elected board of Ken-Caryl Water District, says if you think about it, approval voting is how most group decisions are made anyway.
“I used to run an economics book club, kind of wonky, but we used approval voting to pick the books all the time. It’s easy,” he said.
And when was the last time you ordered pizza—but only two people voted for anchovies?
“It’s something people are familiar with,” Spalding said.
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