Odds or evens? Boulder voters will decide which years are best for City Council elections.

Supporters of ballot measure say it will dramatically increase voter turnout

By: - September 20, 2022 5:00 am

People stroll the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on Aug. 14, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Boulder voters will decide in November whether to move City Council and mayoral elections over to even years, a change supporters say would increase turnout but opponents argue would divide voter attention on too many races at once.

The Boulder City Council voted 6-3 on Sept. 1 to put measure 2E on the ballot this fall, with Council members Mark Wallach, Tara Winer and Bob Yates opposed.

The measure would move the city’s elections for City Council and mayor to even years beginning in 2026 to coincide with state and federal races. To enable the transition, the City Council members elected in 2023 and 2025 would serve three-year terms instead of four-year terms and the mayor elected in 2023 would serve for three years instead of two years.

For Council member Matt Benjamin, his support for the potential shift “comes down to empowering more people to participate in local elections.”

“We are seeing active and deliberate efforts to make it harder and to fundamentally limit who has access and how difficult it is for people to vote. It is the power play in politics right now,” he said. “And for a city like Boulder that prides itself in its liberal values, it is almost obvious that we would be a bastion of creating an electoral environment where the maximum amount of people are participating.”

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Supporters of the measure point to the often dramatic increases in voter turnout from odd-year elections — which see municipal and school board elections — and even-year elections that have broader interest because of statewide and federal elections.

In 2021, for example, the turnout in Boulder was 49%. In 2020, turnout was 90%.

Research shows that cities that move local elections to coincide with even-year November elections, combined with other engagement strategies, see an increase in voter participation and create an active electorate more representative of the city.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of voters who turn out and who vote all the way down the ballot than there are that come out in odd years. We’re really excited about that because we believe that having more people vote leads to a better democracy,” Jill Adler Grano, the chair of the support committee called People for Voter Turnout and former Boulder City Council member, said of studies from cities that have switched to the even-year model.

Cities including Austin, Baltimore and Los Angeles have moved their elections to even years over the past decade. In Colorado, most municipalities have odd-year elections. But some, including Cherry Hills Village, Castle Rock, Monument and Parker, hold elections at the same time as state and federal elections.

“We’ve seen in places across the country that have done this that not only far more voters turn out, but also that local elections get a lot more attention. It brings them in line with national and state elections, which get a lot of attention. Not only more people vote, but there’s more articles written and there’s just more attention given to it on the whole,” Grano said.

Loss of local conversation in even years

Opponents of the measure argue that moving city elections to even years will create a long, congested ballot and could reduce voters’ attention and the prioritization of crucial City Council races.

“The ballot, say in 2028, will read president, senator, House of Representatives, judges, mayor and then members of Council. In that environment, it is highly unlikely that anyone will care what (potential) Council members think,” Wallach, who voted against putting the measure on the ballot, said.

Not only would adding more races to even years split donations, volunteers and media space, he said it could also reduce voters’ willingness to engage with local City Council candidates when federal and state candidates are also competing for their attention — often with more resources.

“There’s an importance to actually meeting people where they live and talking about the issues that they’re not going to care about during even years. That’s at the heart of it for me. The local conversation is a special one,” he said.

Because voters’ attention might be on the presidential and senate races, for example, the enacted measure would “diminish the key players in the governance of Boulder to non-entities,” Wallach said.

That is not good for local representation, opponents say. Voters could only have the bandwidth to tune into the presidential debates and learn about the congressional race, and not have the time or energy to research and engage with local candidates.

“It’s basically skimming votes from people that may go down the ballot,” said former Boulder mayor pro tem and City Council member Mary Young. “I’m not arguing with the fact that you get more votes. But do more votes actually get you a better and more representative City Council if you’re not engaging people in local politics?”

We believe that having more people vote leads to a better democracy.

– Jill Adler Grano, of People for Voter Turnout

Supporters argue, however, that voters receive their mail-in ballot far in advance of Election Day and would have time to research candidates and make educated votes.

Aside from the looming questions of civic engagement and lost voter contact, opponents also worry about the practical issue of orphaning school district races to odd years. Their argument is that even fewer people will vote in odd years when the only race on the ballot is for local school boards and fiscal measures — races that already have dismal turnout.

“If the name for my group was People for Voter Turnout, I would not want the measure I’m supporting to ultimately damage voter turnout,” former mayor and City Council member Sam Weaver said.

Grano said there is conversation about promoting state legislation next session that would allow cities to move school board elections to even years.

Weaver and Young also said they took issue with the process of how the measure got on the ballot. City Council did not follow the proper public engagement process that had been put together, Weaver said, which would have included outreach, multiple public meetings and potentially a working group. Instead, there was one opportunity for public comment during the second reading of the proposed measure on Aug. 11.

“The process was terrible,” Weaver said. He said he would like to see other voter engagement efforts — like targeting under-represented groups or discussing ranked choice voting for City Council — instead of jumping over to even-year elections.

“I call it a sugar high kind of switch. Of course you’ll get more voters,” he said. “But then the question becomes, does that lead to better outcomes for voters themselves?”

Council member discusses ‘quality’ of votes

The debate over the measure grew when Yates, who voted against it, wrote an online post in July that questioned the “quality” of voters who turn out in even years but stay home in odd years.

“Maybe the motive here really is to get more people to vote in city council elections, under the belief that quantity is better than quality. Maybe the proponents sincerely believe that voters who currently opt out of odd-year city council elections will, once presented with a council race in even years, become informed about local issues and make good choices,” he wrote.

Benjamin said that the statement “reeks of all the despicable GOP tactics that are used for voter suppression.”

Boulder City Council elections are nonpartisan.

“It shows an absolute disdain for the very electorate that that individual is elected to represent in our community. There’s really no other way to put it. They have to reconcile trying to look those 20,000 voters … in the face and say, ‘You’re not of sufficient quality,’” he said.

Not every opponent of the measure aligns with Yates’ view.

The split of opinion on the measure reflects a generational divide in Boulder politics, Benjamin said — one where the establishment is content with how things are, but newly activated voters and politicians are pushing for evolution.

“That’s really what it is: People who want Boulder to be stagnant or go back to the way it was, who vehemently oppose increasing voter turnout, because they see increasing voter turnout as enabling change and enabling progress, and that goes against their collective interests,” he said.

He added, “I vehemently disagree with that, because I think every community needs to evolve and allow a future generation to have a stake in the policies that they will live with.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Boulder Valley School District Board President Kathy Gebhardt supports Measure 2E. Gebhardt wrote to Newsline in a Sept. 26 email that she originally supported it but does not anymore. The story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2022.

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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