Boulder ballot issue 2E: Direct Election of the Mayor

Official ballot language

Shall Article II, Sections 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 14, and 15 of the Boulder City Charter be amended to provide for the direct election of the mayor by ranked choice (instant runoff) voting?

What it means

Currently, council members pick the mayor, similar to the way leadership is chosen in Congress. Residents vote in council members, and the mayor is selected via majority vote of his or her peers.

This measure, if passed, would allow voters to elect the mayor themselves using a new method of voting, instant runoff.

What is instant runoff voting and how does it work?

Instant runoff allows voters to rank candidates by preference (first, second, third, etc.). When votes are tallied, election officials look first at the No. 1 rankings. If no candidate received more than 50% of the total first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest No. 1 rankings is eliminated. 

Voters who picked the now-eliminated candidate as their first choice don’t get their ballots tossed, however. Instead, those voters’ second choice votes get distributed to the remaining candidates.

This process continued until there is a candidate with a clear majority of the remaining votes.

Let’s walk through a basic example: 11 ballots are cast in an election with four candidates for a single seat.

4 voters pick Candidate Smith as their top candidate; 4 voters choose Candidate Martinez. Two voters picks Candidate Nguyen as their No. 1; one selects Candidate Williams.

Candidate Williams received the fewest No. 1 rankings, so they are eliminated. That single voter chose Candidate Martinez as their second pick, so Martinez receives one extra vote. The rankings are now: 5 votes for Martinez, 4 for Smith, two for Nguyen.

Since 5 is not a majority of votes cast (11), another round is done. Nguyen has the fewest No. 1 picks, still, so they are eliminated. The two people who ranked Nguyen as No. 1 picked Martinez as their No. 2, so Martinez gets those votes.

The totals are now: 7 for Martinez, 4 for Smith. 7 is more than half of 11, so Martinez wins the seat.

Who is supporting?

This measure was proposed by Our Mayor, Our Choice, a petition campaign. The group failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot — amid shifting deadlines and requirements — but council voted to place an amended version before voters anyway. The leadership team of Our Mayor, Our Choice has familiar political faces: Jan Burton (former city councilwoman), Matt Benjamin and Mark McIntyre (former candidates for city council), and Alli Fronzaglia, member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. McIntyre currently serves on the Transportation Advisory Board.

The measure has been endorsed by the Boulder County Democratic Party, several current and former city council members, the Libertarian Party of Boulder County, Boulder County Green Party, FairVote (a nonpartisan group pushing election reform) and RCV for Colorado, a group seeking to implement ranked choice voting throughout the state.

Who is opposing?

There is no formal opposition to this measure, though the League of Women Voters has expressed some concern. The League has not taken an official position at this time.

Campaign spending

Our Mayor, Our Choice has raised $10,840 to date, and spent $6,910.54, according to campaign filings with the Boulder city clerk.

What to consider when voting

This boils down to two questions: Should Boulderites pick their mayor? And is instant runoff voting the way to do it?

Why you might want to elect the mayor

This will give you more say over who the mayor is. Now, with council members picking a peer, the votes tend to split along partisan lines. (Boulder’s political “parties” typically being divided over issues of growth and development.)

Colorado’s biggest cities directly elect their mayors, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Aurora, Fort Collins, and Greeley. Some smaller towns elect their mayor too: Broomfield, Longmont and Louisville. Boulder is the biggest city in Colorado without a directly elected mayor.

“The system we currently use is common in smaller communities, and it worked when Boulder was a smaller community,” said Matt Benjamin, organizer for Our Mayor, Our Choice. “We’re holding on to small-town things that aren’t relevant in a big city process. (Electing) our mayor … creates a direct line of accountability.”

The mayor is the “face” of the city in many ways, representing Boulder on various regional, state and national groups and often in the media as an unofficial spokesperson. A directly elected mayor might better reflect the community.

Boulder’s mayor doesn’t really have much power that other city council members don’t (see more below) though they do have the additional responsibility of running meetings and helping to set agendas. This can be an important gatekeeping job because it determines what issues get time in public meetings — and how much of it. (This year was a bit different, as the mayor and mayor pro team represented the entire council in negotiations with Xcel over a settlement.) 

Why you might not want to elect the mayor

Boulder’s mayor is kind of a figurehead, and will remain so if 2E passes.The measure won’t change the city government structure  — council-manager, the most common form of governance and typical of larger cities — and won’t grant the mayor any additional powers. 

Proponents of the measure point out that only a few Colorado cities who elect their mayor have a strong-mayor form of government. Of the aforementioned Colorado cities, Aurora, Fort Collins, Greeley, Broomfield and Louisville all employ a council-manager form of government and elect their mayor. Only Denver, Pueblo and Colorado Springs have a strong mayor.

It could create more turnover. The ballot language as written creates a two-year term for mayor; most council members serve four-year terms (some serve less). Mayors are chosen every two years now, each time a new council is seated. But under the current system, a council member is not off council if their peers don’t pick them as mayor again — they serve out the remainder of their term. This would automatically create a position that turns over every two years.

Given the responsibilities of mayor (running the meetings, etc.) it might be a good idea to have some stability, or at least some experienced council members in the role.

Taxpayers might have to pay for the election. (More details below)

Other considerations

Other cities are doing it. Two Colorado cities recently moved in this direction: Pueblo chose its first mayor in decades last year, and Littleton will weigh direct election of mayor this fall. 

Why you might want to use IRV 

Boulder’s means of electing leaders is not representative. It’s at-large (candidates represent the city as a whole, rather than certain districts or wards) plurality (or winner-take-all) and it’s been successfully challenged in court for violating the Voting Rights Act. Election reformers are particularly keen on taking it down as it produces the spoiler effect, leaves minority viewpoints unrepresented, contributes to partisanship and pressures voters to cast a ballot for who they think might win rather than why they really desire.

Boulder is susceptible to a lawsuit because we use the system we use right now,” said Celeste Landry, co-leader of the Voting Methods team of the League of Women Voters of Boulder County.

It could give voters more choice. OK, so your first pick couldn’t hack it, but what about your second or third? Under Boulder’s current system, your ballot wouldn’t count if your preferred candidate isn’t preferred by everyone else. Under instant runoff, your subsequent rankings would be taken into account. 

This is part of a larger movement to reform elections. And while critics say it won’t make much of a difference (see below) a victory for 2E could signal a desire for change. 

It also might motivate the state to act. Colorado has ranked choice voting as a whole — of which instant runoff is one style — on its radar, but the logistics still need to be worked out. This could nudge state officials to increase the pace of that work, proponents claim. 

We’ve done it before. Not exactly this, but Boulder used a multi-winnter form of ranked choice voting to elect council from 1917 to 1947. That system was abandoned after years of challenges.

Why you might not want to use IRV

IRV may not deliver all the choice and diversity it promises. Ranked choice voting — of which IRV is just one form — works best when there are multiple candidates for multiple seats, election experts say.

“Any time you have a single winner contest, there’s no ability to have proportional representation,” Landry said. “It’s not the number of candidates, it’s the number of seats.” 

It might not change much. How many candidates might run for mayor is unclear; if there are two, instant runoff wouldn’t be used. That has happened many times in Basalt, Telluride and Carbondale.

If there are three candidates, the results might still end up in a partisan pick, something proponents of IRV say they are trying to fix.

Let’s say there are two political groups. For simplicity, we’ll call them the Jets and the Sharks. They each put up a candidate, and the followers of those respective parties pick their candidate as top choice. 11 ballots are cast: 5 for Candidate Jet, 5 for Candidate Shark and 1 for the independent candidate. All 10 partisan voters picked the independent candidate as their No. 2 choice, giving them the broadest support. In a race between just the independent candidate and either Candidate Shark or Candidate Jet, the independent would have come out on top. But since the independent won only 1 first-place ballot, they get tossed.

“If you have a lot of partisans who vote for the left or right, and a somewhat smaller number of people who vote for the person in the center, the person in the center gets eliminated,” said Neal McBurnett, an election integrity and security consultant and former board member of The Center for Election Science. “It could be there’s almost unanimous support for the person in the center, but you eliminate them because they weren’t the first choice. You eliminate them early, even though they would have very straightforwardly beat either” partisan candidate in a head-to-head contest.

Of course, that wouldn’t be a worse outcome than now — just not a huge improvement.

Boulder taxpayers might have to pay for the election themselves. Boulder County’s clerk and record, Molly Fitzpatrick, said the county may not be able to run a ranked choice election by 2023, which is when the system is set to be in place. If so, the city of Boulder would have to foot the bill for the software license, roughly $350,000, and ongoing licensing, an estimated $70,000 annually. Additional costs — mailing, staff time, training, etc. — have not been calculated.

An IRV election won’t be audited. The state has not tested and certified an IRV voting system or approach to auditing an IRV election. Boulder, as a home rule municipality,  may be able to opt out of Colorado’s requirements around certification and auditing — City Attorney Tom Carr declined to provide an opinion — but it’s not entirely clear if that’s the case. The Secretary of State’s office declined to weigh in.

Other considerations

The state does allow cities to conduct ranked choice voting and has published rules to govern them. And the company that Boulder would tap to run the election, Dominion, has conducted IRV elections in other states. So it is theoretically possible.

How the election would be run is unclear, at least on the back end. Fitzpatrick declined to answer questions about what the county vs. city would handle: “I can’t speak to what that would look like,” she said. “It would require a lot of conversations between the city and conty.” 

Other cities are doing it, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Santa Fe. Denver is considering it, and Basalt and Telluride both employ instant runoff voting for mayor. (Those smaller cities hand count their ballots, which Boulder couldn’t do.)

But some are abandoning it, like Aspen and Burlington, Vermont, though the latter is reconsidering instant runoff this year.

More information

Have questions about this measure? Ask Boulder city staff via this link (Note: Because of laws against election interference, city employees can provide factual information only, not analysis or opinions)

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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