Opinion: No on 2E: Keep the focus on local issues

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Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022

Learn more about 2E: Change regular municipal elections to even years

Get a second opinion: Yes on 2E: To broaden democracy, broaden the vote

By Mary Young and Jim Hooton
Save Local Elections

Save Local Elections is an issue committee advocating against moving city council elections to even years

This November, Boulder voters will be asked to change city council elections from odd years to even years. The proponents are well-intended, but it’s a bad idea.

What are the potential unintended consequences?

BVSD abandonment: This measure changes only the timing of Boulder’s city council elections and does not consider the impact to remaining odd-year elections. These “orphaned elections,” which include BVSD school board, state ballot fiscal measures and local ballot measures, would remain in odd years as required by state law. 

Without municipal candidates to drum up interest, voter turnout would likely decrease even more in odd years with potentially deleterious effects. Vitally important school board races would almost certainly see reduced turnout, making them a potential target for an ideological takeover.

Decision fatigue: Last year we had ten candidates for city council. In the previous election, we had fifteen. Adding these candidates to a ballot filled with races for President, Senate, Congress, State Legislators, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, CU Regents, Judge retention, County Commissioners and Referendums will make the ballot overly complex and cause city council elections to get lost in the shuffle. 

A California Berkeley study found that when faced with a long ballot, voters are more likely to abstain and or to rely on decision shortcuts, such as voting for the status quo or the first candidate listed in a race.

Marginalized city council races: City council candidates’ positions on local issues, from public safety and climate initiatives to growth and flood protection, would be drowned out by the noise and partisan conflict of national issues. Donors and volunteers who now work on state/national elections and local elections would be forced to choose between them or be stretched twice as thin.

Historically, the manipulation of election timing has been a tactic of partisan players to secure an edge over their rivals. Reformers of the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) sought to change these dynamics. These reformers came together at a National Municipal League conference with a goal of good governance and set forth reforms to accomplish that goal. These reforms included off-cycle elections working in tandem with the additional ideas of non-partisan local governance and home rule charters. Boulder’s current municipal elections reflect all three of these reforms.

These reforms included off-cycle elections working in tandem with the additional ideas of non-partisan local governance and home rule charters. Boulder’s current municipal elections reflect all three of these reforms.

The current timing of Boulder’s city council elections is designed to minimize confusion and help make voting an annual habit. Our odd-year elections happen in November, the same timing as Federal elections in even years. 

Colorado already leads the country in making it easy to vote and voter turnout. Our reforms of same-day registration, mail-in ballots and automatic registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles address barriers to voting cited in other locales. Here in Colorado and Boulder, registration is easy, receiving a ballot at your address is automatic, and mailing or dropping off ballots is convenient.

How will this tactic improve our local governance? It won’t. Municipal (and school board) issues are vastly different from the emotionally charged and divisive partisan issues at the state and national levels. Holding city council elections at the same time as federal issues changes the incentives for local candidates to turn their attention to national issues and away from local governance. Why talk about flood control if the right to an abortion is the hot topic of the day?

Local governments are and must be responsive to the basic needs of its people: clean water, housing, storm drainage, public safety, snow removal, emergency medical services, transportation, town-gown relations and K-12 education (BVSD), to name a few. Electing municipal officials based on their stances on guns and abortion is a disservice to the responsiveness and responsibilities of city government. 

Even-year elections would risk nationalizing our local level politics with resultant elite-style polarization that would invariably eschew critically important services that affect our daily lives.

How will this change engage and inspire new people to participate in city government leadership? It won’t. 

This is about garnering more votes by riding on the coattails of national and statewide campaigns. Voter turnout, regardless of election timing, is lower for low-income folks (who are disproportionately people of color). Yet outreach, regardless of timing, typically focuses on likely voters. Political parties and interest groups focus on voters who will turn out for their issues, thus ignoring those “unlikely” to vote.

There is much work we could do and action we could take to keep our focus on local issues, increase the representativeness of our local city council, engage new people for local leadership roles into the future and avoid unintended consequences. The following efforts would be undiluted in odd years and could do more for strong local governance and creating a local culture of voting in local elections than moving municipal candidate elections to even years.

Boulder city government in partnership with our Community Foundation could commit more time, effort and money to local outreach and information dissemination to unlikely voters and make the case for the impact of local elections. Consider these suggestions from the National Civic League:

  • Provide incentives for landlords to distribute voter registration and other election information to low-income tenants
  • Engage our community connectors program to distribute targeted educational materials and mentor new voters
  • Print and distribute bilingual sample local ballots. Boulder is already required by the state to provide a call-in service in Spanish. Let’s take this a step further.

Increasing city council compensation could encourage more diverse residents to run for city council. The work is demanding and the pay abysmal, a situation that discourages potential candidates.

Getting more people to vote in local elections is something we can all agree on. But let’s keep the elections in odd years so that city council candidates get the scrutiny they need. Let’s make voting an annual habit and preserve focused attention on city council races like they deserve.

Keep our local politics local. Please join us in voting NO on Ballot Measure 2E!

Mary Dolores Young is a former Boulder City Council member and Mayor Pro-Tem. Jim Hooton has lived in Boulder since 1997 and is the retired CEO of a software consulting company and husband of State Rep. Edie Hooton.

This op-ed does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Beat, its writers, editors or contributors.

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