Frank Atwood wants to change the way America votes.
Atwood, 70, is the chairman of the Approval Voting Party. The group passed the threshold of 1,000 members in the state at the beginning of October, which qualifies it as a minor party in Colorado — in the same league as the Libertarian, Green and American Constitution parties. The status means the party will now automatically appear on presidential ballots in Colorado, so long as they properly nominate a candidate.
The party takes no stance on education, defense, health care or guns, Atwood said. Their sole issue: building support for approval voting, a method where a voter is not limited to selecting a single candidate in a race, but can select as many candidates as they approve of.
“Approval voting is like a show of hands among friends,” said Atwood, a retired engineer from Littleton. “When friends are deciding where to go out to eat, if they're deciding between four restaurants, you might hold your hand up for both Chinese and Italian. Nobody's saying you can only vote once.”
The result, Atwood said, is a political equalization that diminishes the power of the two-party system, and gives more viability and visibility to minor parties.
“Right now, Libertarians, Greens and others are crucified on the 'wasted vote' cross,” Atwood said. “If you've got one precious vote, you don't want to waste it on a candidate who's going to lose. Lots of people feel they have to vote for the lesser of two evils.”
The flip side, Atwood said, is the method reduces the ability of “spoiler” candidates to tilt an election — think Ross Perot in 1992 or Ralph Nader in 2000.
Atwood is no stranger to politics. Calling himself a “former milquetoast Republican,” Atwood ran for Congress as a Libertarian in Colorado's 1st District in 2012, drawing more than 12,000 votes. The experience disillusioned him on minor parties, which he said are effectively shut out of most partisan races.
Atwood is all-in on approval voting, he said. His minivan doubles as a rolling billboard, sporting big decals extolling the party.
He ran for president in 2016 as the party's first presidential candidate, paying a $1,000 fee and lining up nine electors in order to appear on the state ballot. Atwood earned 337 votes statewide, mostly in Arapahoe and Denver counties.
The party held its first state convention in June, at a Whole Foods in Denver. Atwood said the party's message is resonating with people in a time of hyperpartisanship.
“Voting for only one candidate feeds polarization and factionalism,” Atwood said. “People are desperate for a positive message.”
Everyone's a critic
Not everyone is sold on Atwood's message.
Atwood sits on Littleton's elections commission, a city council-appointed board that provides citizen oversight on city elections. Over the summer, the commission — at Atwood's urging — voted 4-1 to send a resolution to city council, asking council to urge the state Legislature to allow approval voting in nonpartisan municipal elections.
City council rejected the resolution by a vote of 4-3 in September.
“If we're going to send things to the Legislature with our recommendation, I'd rather save that for bigger issues, like transportation,” said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman. “This just didn't rise to that level.”
Brinkman said she isn't sure the issue has broad appeal.
“This isn't coming from the community,” Brinkman said. “It's coming from four people on the election commission. I don't think they have enough to do.”
Approval voting isn't unheard of in elections, said Rob Preuhs, the chair of the political science department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The method is used for internal voting within numerous political parties, Preuhs said, and forms of the method have been used in local elections around the world for centuries. Fargo, North Dakota recently became the first city in the nation to enact approval voting in local elections, Preuhs said, but they haven't yet conducted a citywide election with the method.
Approval voting has some built-in problems, Preuhs said. In a race with multiple winners, such as a multi-seat city council, approval voting opens the door to strategic voting that could allow special-interest groups to elect a slate that might not win otherwise.
“For most citizens, local elections in particular are lacking in information,” Preuhs said. “People often vote by looking at the yard signs on their neighbor's lawn. Coalitions can emerge, and approval voting can give voting blocks even more power than they have now.”
Atwood admits the system has flaws, and said approval voting is likely a poor choice for multi-seat elections. If city council had approved his resolution and the Legislature had enacted it, Atwood said he would have recommended that multi-seat races continue to be conducted with the traditional single-vote method.
Atwood himself has at times been associated with a sort of special-interest group. He calls himself “perhaps one of the founding members” of Sunshine, a community watchdog group that in years past has played a role in contentious political battles in Littleton.
Sunshine has no official membership roster, Atwood said, and its attendees span the political spectrum. The group doesn't speak with one voice, he said. Critics have accused the group of fearmongering on local issues, a charge Atwood rejects.
Atwood has no interest in trying to elect a Sunshine slate to city council, he said.
“I promise no one victory,” Atwood said. “Slates emerge on their own, and they get elected under our current system.”
For Atwood and the Approval Voting Party, the next step is an appearance at Denver's Alternative Voting Methods Symposium on Dec. 7, where advocates will tout the virtues of a variety of arcane and complex vote tallying methods.
From there, the Approval Voting Party must hold an assembly before mid-April in order to appear on the 2020 ballot, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.
Atwood hasn't yet decided if he'll vie to run as the party's presidential nominee again.
“My wife has a rule,” Atwood said. “I can run for any political office I want, so long as I have no chance of winning.”
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