2E: Change Regular Municipal Election to Even Years

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022

Read all Boulder Beat’s Election 2022 coverage (y en español)

What’s on the ballot?

Shall Sections 5, 14, and 22 of the Boulder Home Rule Charter be amended to change the regular municipal election date to even numbered years on the same date as the state general election beginning with the November 2026 election date, and to implement the transition, reduce the term of the council members elected in 2023 and 2025 to three years and increase the term of the mayor elected in 2023 to three years, all as more specifically provided in Ordinance 8546?

What does it mean?

This would move city council elections to even years from odd years, starting in 2026. 

In the next two city council elections (2023 and 2025), council members would be elected for three-year terms, rather than four years as they are now, in order to get council members on the even-year schedule.

Boulder’s mayor will be elected in 2023 and serve until 2026. After that, the mayor will be elected every two years, at the same time as the rest of the city council.

Why you might want to vote for this

More voters — even on local issues

More people vote in even-year elections — many more. Over the past decade, an average of 26,000 more ballots are cast by Boulderites in even-year elections than in odd-year ones, according to publicly available county election data.

Even in looking at votes only on local measures (city of Boulder ballot items), 17,000 more people vote, on average, in even years than odd ones — again, that’s ballots cast only on local measures. 

Other cities have seen similarly dramatic increases by switching to even-year elections. A survey of 350 California cities found that switching to even years boosted participation by 21% to 36%, again in local elections. Los Angeles saw participation in local elections double, triple and even quadruple (in one district). 

It is worth noting that in L.A., local races appear at the top of the ballot, before state, federal and even presidential contests. However, a study comparing L.A. and San Diego did not find much ballot dropoff in the latter city (less than 3%), even for contests at the end of long ballots — end-of-ballot voting in even years was higher than turnout for top-of-ballot contests in odd years. 

Boulder does have more ballot drop-off in even years: 7.7%, on average, over the past decade, according to an analysis by Boulder Beat, compared to odd years (3%). It’s slightly greater still in presidential years:8%. However, the number of additional people who vote for local measures in even and presidential elections — again, 17,000 on average over the past decade — still far exceeds the number who skip local races on those ballots (4,640). 

More representation

Research indicates that voters in an even-year election are better representative of the population as a whole — and so are the governments they elect. Latinx, Black, Asian-American, lower-income and younger voters, as well as voters who rent their homes, are all better represented in even-year voter turnout, even in local contests. 

As the authors of “Who Votes: City Election Timing and Voter Composition” noted, “The shift to on-cycle elections and in particular the move to presidential election dates brings us closer to a world where voters begin to look more like the population of city residents.”

However, data also shows that these racial and ethnic impacts in Boulder may be limited: The most drastic increases in representation were in districts with higher nonwhite voters. Gains in majority-white communities were more modest.

Decreased influence of interest groups

Even-year elections also seem to lessen the influence of interest groups. In local government, those tend to be “homeowners, developers, city employees, and business owners” as well as unions, according to researcher Sarah Anzia, who literally wrote the book on election timing.

Cities with off-cycle voting “pay police officers and firefighters more,” Anzia wrote for City Journal, “When is the Election? How off-cycle election timing distorts democracy.”  

“They also spend more on employee salaries and benefits overall and have higher operating expenditures.” Another one of Anzia’s studies, “Timing and Turnout: How Off-cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups,” specifically found that school districts that hold odd-year elections have higher teacher salaries because the teachers’ union is one of the best-organized interest groups in many communities.

That’s not necessarily bad — we want our teachers and city employees to be well paid. But it does suggest there is a limited pool of voters reached by odd-year elections.

“These groups benefit from off-cycle election timing” because they are better organized, Anzia wrote. “Off-cycle election timing therefore tends to increase the influence of interest groups.”

Any change in Boulder may be less pronounced than in other areas due to our relatively high turnout compared to other cities.

Why you might not want to vote for this

Orphan elections

Moving the biggest races to even years might exacerbate the low-turnout problem for remaining odd-year initiatives, such as school board races and whatever taxes or issues are advanced by city council and/or citizen petitions — strengthening the power of interest groups in those years.

Increased partisanship

There are also concerns over the “nationalization” of local politics, through either increasing partisanship or an influx of campaign spending. There is no research into the impacts of on- or off-year election cycles on campaign spending, according to numerous experts in the field, so we don’t know if this fear is founded. 

Eric Hacopian, a political consultant interviewed by L.A. Mag, believed local elections would get spendier as candidates and campaigns now had to reach a broader cross-section of the community rather than relying on the same reliable base of active voters — as he put it, the “key community leaders, neighborhood council heads and homeowners associations.”

This could give an advantage to larger, wealthier and more organized groups — although, as noted above, interest groups already have an established advantage in odd-year elections, and research indicates this decreases somewhat in even years. 

Polarization and partisanship are harder to quantify, and Boulder’s elections are already plenty partisan and polarized. Again, there does not seem to be research into this particular topic.

Other considerations

A transition to even-year elections would also result in shorter terms for elected officials in 2023 and 2025, and require back-to-back elections in 2025 and 2026. The changes may impact who runs for office those years and may result in voter fatigue for the 2026 race. 

On the other hand, this was the only option for transition that didn’t extend terms of existing council members or skip an election.

Note from the author and editors:

Some opponents of even-year elections have made a quantity vs. quality argument. They say, in effect, that people who don’t vote in odd-year elections (but presumably will in even years) are less informed than those who pay attention to local issues every year. 

Boulder Beat rejects this argument based on our belief in democracy and every American’s right to vote. Classifying some votes as “better” than others is inherently undemocratic — particularly at this time of eroding national democracy.

(Also, it’s worth noting that many proponents of this quality argument are the same voices who have trumpeted the results of issues approved by voters on even years, such as the 2020 decision to directly elect Boulder’s mayor and the rejection of an attempt to amend occupancy limits that same year, the 2018 approval of a tax for open space, etc. So these same voters who can’t be trusted to pick their elected officials were apparently qualified to vote on these issues.)

This is not an endorsement of this measure. As mentioned above, there are considerations other than increasing turnout. But Boulder Beat encourages you to reject any arguments based on the belief that some people’s votes are better than others. Such beliefs are antithetical to the very ideals of democracy, in which everyone has equal say under the law.

In America, at least for now, every vote counts.

What sections of Boulder’s charter will be amended?

Section 5: Terms of election-recall. Language would be added to specify that council candidates elected in 2023 and 2025 would serve three-year terms. Language about four-year terms (and two-year terms for mayor) would be removed.

Section 14: Selection and term of office of mayor. Language will be added to specify that the mayor elected in 2023 will serve for three years and two years thereafter. 

Section 22: Municipal elections defined. Language will be added specifying the 2023 and 2025 elections as regular (rather than special) elections, and defining even-year elections thereafter as regular (rather than special elections). This matters because special elections have different rules and requirements for things like petition signatures.

Who is supporting?

A majority of city council members placed this on the ballot, but there is a formal group backing a yes vote: People for Voter Turnout. The issue committee is headed by former City Council Member Jill Grano.

As of Oct. 18, People for Voter Turnout had raised $12,067.46 and spent $7,416.02

The following organizations have endorsed 2E:
NAACP Boulder County
Daily Camera
Boulder Weekly
Colorado Working Families Party
Better Boulder
Boulder Progressives
New Era Colorado
Boulder DSA
Indian Peaks Sierra Club
ACLU of Colorado
View a full list of endorsements

Who is opposing?

Save Local Elections is formally opposing the move to even-year elections. The group is run by Mary Young, a former Boulder City Council member, and Jim Hooton, an investor and husband of former Colorado Rep. Edie Hooton. 

As of Oct. 18, Save Local Elections had raised $12,115.90 and spent $5,845.80

The following organizations are opposing 2E:
Boulder Valley Education Association
PLAN-Boulder County
Think Boulder
Safer Boulder
Together 4 Boulder
Forward Boulder
South East Boulder Neighborhood Association
View a full list of endorsements

Learn more

dailycamera.com/2022/08/09/guest-opinion-brian-keegan-odd-election-years-are-temporal-gerrymandering/ (opinion)

Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that council members will be elected to three-year terms in 2023. There won’t be any members elected to a one-year term, as the article originally stated.

 — Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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