A small group of people huddle around a large monitor
Rachel Friend, a member of the Boulder City Council, watched the election results come in at the Ash'Kara restaurant in downtown Boulder on Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: John Herrick

About 47% of the city of Boulder’s 70,000 active registered voters cast their ballots in the 2021 election, according to an analysis of county data by the Boulder Reporting Lab. 

That’s relatively low voter participation for Boulder. But low turnout is typical in off-year elections, when the voting rate is generally about half that of a general election.

In some areas of the city, turnout was particularly low. 

In one voting precinct on University Hill, a neighborhood populated by CU Boulder students, fewer than 5% of voters cast ballots. (That’s similar to 2019, when turnout was 6% in this precinct of about 500 registered voters.) 

Less than one mile away, student housing fades to single-family homes bordering open space. Here in the Chautauqua neighborhood, which is among the city’s wealthiest, turnout was among the city’s highest. About 63% of voters in this precinct cast their ballots.  

The ten-fold difference in turnout between practically neighboring precincts highlights a disparity among Boulder voters that is particularly wide in off-year municipal elections. In the 2020 presidential election, the same University Hill precincts that turned out in the single-digits topped 70%. The county-wide turnout average that year was about 90%. 

According to researchers, college student turnout is especially low in off-year municipal elections, in part due to less media and campaigning. Unlike presidential elections, some students don’t believe they’re affected by certain local issues, such as who sits on the county commission or school board, according to Douglas Spencer, a law professor at CU Boulder. 

Students elsewhere in the country have rallied around the issue of housing occupancy limits, a policy that Question 300 on this year's ballot sought to change. Such occupancy ordinances, passed across the country in the 1960s, were partially designed to control how many students lived in certain neighborhoods.

The measure failed by fewer than 5 percentage points. Voters elected five people to the Boulder City Council, one incumbent and four new members. Three of the five join a majority on the nine-member governing body who have indicated they want some level of reform to the city’s occupancy limits as soon as next year.

This year’s gap in participation follows a presidential election in which national college student turnout broke records, according to a recent study by Tufts University. Turnout among college students in Boulder was particularly high last year, too, in part due to a University of Colorado outreach campaign encouraging students to vote. 

“Voter mobilization efforts work,” Spencer said. “This past election illustrates how the lack of a sustained effort by the university to encourage democratic participation leads to lower turnout.”

Clarification: A sentence in this article was amended to make it clear that five new members were elected to the City Council this year, one incumbent and four new members.

John Herrick is a reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. Email: john@boulderreportinglab.org.