Xcel deal maintains lead Wednesday as more Boulder ballots are counted

Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020

Residents wanting resolution in Boulder’s decade-long energy saga will have to wait just a bit longer, as a vote to settle with Xcel Energy still could be up in the air. Support for 2C — which would re-establish a franchise agreement with the utility provider — held steady at 53% through Wednesday, maintaining an 3,247-vote edge as of 5:54 p.m.

But there could be 8,000 ballots left to count, based on historic turnout. (See more detail below) And this would not be the first dramatic, overnight comeback for the muni, which has survived six votes so far.

Campaigns on both sides of 2C were uncomfortable calling the race early Wednesday morning, though proponents of a yes vote were optimistic their lead would last the night. The Boulder County Clerk and Recorder’s office released new totals Wednesday afternoon, but numbers barely budged. More results were promised end-of-day Thursday.

2C – Xcel franchise, settlement
As of 5:54 p.m.
25,991 yes (53.33%)
22,744 no (46.67%)
Total votes: 48,735
Source: Boulder County Clerk and Recorder

All five Boulder ballot measures were passing in unofficial results; 2C led all night. But as more votes were tallied, the margins shrank.

Yes’s grew more slowly (33% increase) than no’s (36% increase) between 7:10 p.m. and 12:36 a.m., though they maintained a majority of new votes, 52% to 48%. From 12:36 a.m. Wednesday to 5:54 p.m., yes’s grew by 3.7% and no’s by 4%, and the 1,838 new votes counted during that time were evenly split.

2C counts: 7:10 p.m.
18,921 yes (54.1%)
16,056 no (45.9%)
Total votes: 34,977

2C counts: 12:36 a.m.
25,072 yes (53.46%)
+6,151 or 33% from 7:10 p.m.
21,825 no (46.54%)
+5,769 or 36% from 7:10 p.m.
Total votes: 46,897
+11,920 from 7:10 p.m. (48% no, 52% yes)

2C counts: 5:54 p.m.
25,991 yes (53.33%)
+919 or 3.7% from 12:36 a.m.

22,744 no (46.67%)
+919 or 4% from 12:36 a.m. 
Total votes: 48,735
+1,838 from 12:36 a.m. (50% no, 50% yes)

It’s similar to what happened in 2017, when voters extended a key funding source for muni exploration, keeping the effort alive. The measure was down by double digits at 7 p.m.; by the next afternoon, results had reversed. The measure passed by 1,054 votes.

The flip was attributed to late turnout among university students who were heavily courted by pro-muni political organization New Era Colorado.

Students outreach this year was notably lessened by the pandemic, according to Angelique Espinoza. Espinoza was on campus Tuesday repping Committee for Boulder’s Great Green Deal, a campaign advocating for a yes on 2C and its companion measure, 2D.

There’s just not as much activity on campus” as in 2017, Espinoza said. New Era was conducting voter engagement, but “it was nowhere near as extensive as it’s been in non-pandemic years. … I saw a slow but steady stream of students coming into vote. I couldn’t really tell you how many there were. But it wasn’t thousands.”

Lobbying on the issue was less intense than in years past. Just two groups — one on each side — raised funds; a collective $85,571 as of Oct. 29. In comparison, a half-dozen pro-muni campaigns collected a cumulative $82,000 in 2017, outspending the sole opposing organization five times over.

2020 campaign spending on 2C, 2D
As of Oct. 29
Committee for Boulder’s Great Green Deal: $47,719.70
No on 2C for Local Power: $37,852.46
Source: Boulder city clerk

The biggest difference from 2017 is that, if the muni pursuit ends, Boulder will still be left with something. A settlement with Xcel includes local say in planning, measurable emissions reduction goals and a path to pick up work on municipalization in the future.

“It seems like from the results so far, that voters are recognizing the value of the deal with Xcel and the benefits that it brings,” Espinoza said. “I think they want to get to work sooner on climate action, safety improvements for the community and savings for the city budget.”

Susan Peterson, a spokesperson for No on 2C, shared similar sentiments about the importance of swift action.

“While it’s still too close to call, the important thing is that Boulder come together to use all our creativity to solve the climate crisis, with or without Xcel,” Peterson wrote via text in response to requests for comment.

It was 10 years ago on election day that Boulder started its formal divergence from Xcel, with voters opting to not renew a franchise agreement with the utility provider and instead fund exploration of alternatives.

Since then, Boulder has been navigating the legal and regulatory process necessary to break away from Xcel and acquire its physical assets in the city. State regulators gave the green light in late 2019 after four years; federal regulators recently dismissed an application “because Boulder does not own or have a reasonable expectation of owning the facilities” anytime soon.

Staff revealed this year that it will be at least 2022 before residents know how much it will cost to buy Xcel’s system. Voters will then weigh the purchase in a final go/no-go vote. 

Several votes on the issue have been decided by thin margins. Turnout has never exceeded 36,000 on a muni measure; this is the first time a vote has coincided with a presidential election. 

Though Boulder’s Great Green Deal is “hopeful that 2C and 2D will prevail.” Assuming remaining votes follow a similar split to ballots already counted, the franchise agreement will be approved.

Early Wednesday, Espinoza said organizers aren’t ready to relax just yet.

“Obviously, there’s plenty of room for a change,” she said. “It seems extremely unlikely” that 2C will fail, “but you never know. You just never know.”

2D, which would repurpose and extend the Utility Occupation Tax through 2025, was passing with 56% support as of 12:36 a.m. The funds, about $2 million per year, will be used to increase Boulder’s sourcing of renewable energy and to provide utility assistance for lower-income residents.

Ballots by the numbers: Why the Beat isn’t calling it

In looking at turnout by precinct, 58,638 ballots have been counted in Boulder. There are 74,648 active, registered voters in the city; turnout has averaged 78% so far.

Boulder County turnout in 2016 was 89.5%. Assuming similar turnout this year — and consistency between the city and county — would be 66,089 ballots, or 8,171 more than have been counted.

The Beat is using ~60,000 ballots as a best estimate for total turnout. That’s based on the city-specific measure from 2016 — the last presidential election — that drew the most votes. (2H, the sugary drinks tax: 60,788)

2018’s election saw ~52,000 ballots cast for a city issue (another sugary drinks tax vote).

This year’s highest-turnout issue is 2B, No Eviction Without Representation: 50,365 votes as of 5:54 p.m.

Subtract that from 60,000 and that leaves ~9,635 ballots outstanding. In other words: There could be more than enough uncounted votes to tip the scales.

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

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