City of Boulder voters will likely decide this November whether to shift councilmember and mayoral elections to even-numbered years to coincide with state and federal contests. The effort is aimed at boosting voter turnout in local elections.
The Boulder City Council debated on Thursday, Aug. 11, whether to place a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot to begin holding even-year municipal elections in 2026. A final vote is expected on Sept. 1. It appears likely to pass.
To enable the transition from odd to even years, the four city councilmembers elected in 2023 would serve three-year terms instead of four years.
The city’s first direct election of mayor by ranked-choice voting is planned for 2023. If the new measure passes, the newly elected mayor would serve a three-year term — rather than a two-year term.
A previous proposal for the ballot measure would have extended the terms of existing councilmembers, but received pushback.
Proponents of the ballot measure seek to address the drop-off in voter turnout for odd-year elections, when voters cast ballots for city councilmembers, municipal ballot measures and school board members. The drop in turnout is particularly large among lower-income and younger residents, such as CU Boulder students, according to recent analyses.
Hours before the city council discussion, a ballot measure campaign committee, People For Voter Turnout, announced the launch of a campaign to pass the even-year election measure. The committee’s chair is Jill Adler Grano, a former city councilmember who also worked as the community affairs director for Congressman Joe Neguse. (The group’s official elections filing does not list any other people affiliated with the campaign.)
Grano served as a board member for New Era Colorado, a nonprofit that has organized get-out-the-vote campaigns on University Hill to get more college students to cast their ballots.
“This is the number one thing we can do to get more people engaged and voting in local elections,” she told Boulder Reporting Lab. “I think far from detracting from city council races, it … will help bring these very important local elected leaders into the light.”
In seeking this change, Boulder joins a national trend to align federal and local elections. In the last decade, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Maryland and several California cities – including Los Angeles — have made the change. The City of Aurora is considering the switch. Though the vast majority don’t, several cities and towns in Colorado already hold local elections in even-numbered years, including the City of Cherry Hills Village and the towns of Castle Rock, Parker and Monument. The towns of Estes Park and Nederland hold even-year elections in April.
Councilmember Matt Benjamin, who chaired the 2020 Our Mayor Our Choice ballot measure committee backing direct election of mayor, was among those who pitched the idea of even-year elections at the city council’s January retreat.
“Historically speaking, Boulder City Council has not been an accurate reflection of the community it represents,” Benjamin told Boulder Reporting Lab. “Usually those people who are not voting [in odd-year elections] are lower income, marginalized communities and people of color. Increasing voter turnout is a great way to make sure they have a seat at the table.”
According to Boulder County election data, 30,000 fewer city voters cast their ballots in 2021, compared to 2020 — though that was a high turnout year for a presidential election, with about 90% of the city’s residents casting ballots.
Along with Benjamin, Rachel Friend, Lauren Folkerts, Junie Joseph, Nicole Speer and Mayor Aaron Brockett indicated on Thursday they plan to vote to approve the measure. Bob Yates and Mark Wallach said they are against it. Tara Winer was absent.
The measure has stoked debate among members of the community.
Opponents argue holding elections at the same time as attention-grabbing presidential races will distract voters from local issues and bring national partisanship into city elections. Others worry it will result in “fall off,” when people vote for races at the top of the ballot but not those listed lower down. The change might also result in fewer people voting in off-cycle races for statewide fiscal ballot measures and Boulder Valley School District school board races.
“I worry about the orphaned ballot measures and school board races,” said Celeste Landry, a member of the voting methods team for the League of Women Voters of Boulder County, who said she was speaking on behalf of herself, not the organization. Landry said she is “pro-voter turnout in all elections.”
One thing everyone agrees on is the stakes are high. By design, it will change who gets elected to the Boulder City Council and which factions hold power.
The split opinion regarding even-year elections, at least among the most politically involved Boulderites, reflects a broader divide over contentious issues of urban density and housing development.
PLAN-Boulder County, a nonprofit that has long advocated for open space and has been influential in shaping Boulder’s land-use policies, opposes the change.
“We’re in the midst of the most radical attempt to change Boulder election politics in elections history,” Peter Mayer, co-chair of the organization, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “We benefit greatly from the opportunity to think locally in those odd-year elections. And that is going to be lost if we move to an even year.”
Mayer said he did not want to speculate on what effect it would have on PLAN’s influence in local politics. He expects his organization’s policies will continue to be popular with people of all ages.
“That doesn’t concern me. But it does concern me that we’re going to see much greater partisanship and people will be focused more on party identification of candidates than on the ideas of candidates,” he said. “It basically amounts to a dumbing down of local city elections.”
Separately, Mayer is spearheading a campaign to repeal the city’s agreement with the University of Colorado to annex a former gravel mine in South Boulder known as CU South. The city plans to build a flood mitigation project on the property, and the university wants to build student and faculty housing.
As a formality, the Boulder City Council, which supports the CU South annexation plan, is also expected to place the CU South repeal measure on the November ballot.
Another proposed ballot measure scheduled for a vote next month would bar people from running for both city council and mayor in the same election cycle. City officials said this is necessary due to complications with campaign finance rules.