Boulder voters this election approved a ballot measure to move city council elections to even years, a change that is likely to give the city’s younger voters more sway over who serves on the Boulder City Council.
The ballot measure, 2E, was approved by a vote of 62% to 38%, according to the latest election results. The city’s first even-year election would take place in November 2026.
The ballot measure passed during what was a successful election for Boulder’s progressive faction. A measure to repeal the CU South annexation agreement failed by 54% to 46%. Another measure to create a library district, and pay for it with a property tax increase, also looks likely to pass, now leading by a 52% to 48% margin, after early votes showed it trailing.
According to national studies, even-year elections have higher turnout among young people, especially during presidential elections. In Boulder, the measure is expected to boost turnout for CU Boulder students in city council elections, as well as workers and others who may struggle to find time to vote in off-cycle years.
“The electorate will better represent the community as a whole. Therefore, our representatives will represent the community as a whole,” Chelsea Castellano, an organizer with the even-year elections campaign, said in an interview on election night. “In the future, more people who typically haven’t had a voice are going to have that voice.”
The Boulder City Council referred the measure to the ballot with the support of local progressive organizers. The group backing the measure, People For Voter Turnout, was chaired by Jill Adler Grano, a former city councilmember who served as a board member for New Era Colorado, a nonprofit that has organized get-out-the-vote campaigns on University Hill.
In making the change, Boulder joins a growing number of cities switching to even-year elections. San Francisco voters voted this week to have mayoral elections in even years. Los Angeles just held its first even-year mayoral election after voting to make the change in 2015. Though most 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.
Even so, about 70% of the nation’s 50 largest cities still have odd-year local elections, according to Zoltan Hajnal, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego who has published research about even-year elections. Hajnal said many local elections were changed to odd years in the early 1900s for a variety of reasons — some good, some bad. Some places wanted to ensure voters were more knowledgeable about local issues, so they kept them separate from the noise of national elections. Others wanted to make it harder for non-white or working class people to vote.
“By expanding the electorate to include a greater variety of voices and opinions, we tend to move local government policy in line with the average citizen,” Hajnal said in an interview. “From a democratic standpoint, you want to hear from everybody.”
The switch to even-year elections is expected to provide a foothold for Boulder’s progressive political organizers, who for years have lamented about lower voter turnout in off years as a barrier to getting their policies passed.
Their most recent example was the Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure, which sought to lift the city’s housing occupancy laws. In single-family home neighborhoods, no more than three unrelated people can live together.
The campaign petitioned to put a measure on the ballot in 2020, a presidential election that had a relatively high 90% voter turnout. But it missed the deadline to submit signatures for approval after the former city attorney provided the campaign an incorrect filing date. The next year, in 2021, when turnout was 48%, the group got the measure on the ballot, but it failed 52% to 48%.
Had it been voted on in 2020, it almost certainly would have passed. About 80% of voters in precincts on University Hill, where student neighborhoods are occupied primarily by renters, cast ballots in 2020. Their participation dropped to about 18% in 2021. While turnout was low, results from that year showed that in some precincts on the Hill support for lifting occupancy limits was as high as 90%.
In recent decades, the city council has been mostly controlled by a political faction in Boulder that has sought to continue to limit the amount of urban infill and housing development. In 2021, a progressive — or “pro-growth” — faction in Boulder won a majority on the council. Some local activists are optimistic the move to even-year elections will potentially cement a progressive advantage for years to come.
“For a very long time we have been enacting policies that are stagnant,” said Lisa Sweeney-Miran, a Boulder Valley School District board member and volunteer for the even-year elections campaign. She said she expects the change to even years could eventually prompt new housing and transportation policies that support people who walk and bike, and allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes in single-family home neighborhoods.
“We have the potential to make greater progress with the passage of 2E and with having elected officials who are responsive to an entire city,” Sweeney-Miran said.
‘I’m getting nervous for Boulder’
The Boulder County Democratic Party declined to endorse the ballot measure. Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, argued it’s “another example of a reasonable idea that wasn’t adequately discussed and vetted by a diverse set of stakeholders.” And PLAN-Boulder County, an influential political organization that advocates for open space, rallied against it, telling its supporters it would “greatly increase partisan identification of candidates through yard signs, campaign events, and coordination.”
Much of the opposition centered on concerns about extra-long ballots, resulting in people ignoring city council races. Many also worried that moving city council elections to even years would result in even fewer people voting in local school board races, which are still held in odd years.
“I’m getting nervous for Boulder,” Jim Hooton, treasurer of the Save Local Elections committee opposing 2E and husband of former State Rep. Edie Hooton, said on election night. “People only have so much capacity to focus on political issues. What will suffer will be those down ballot issues like city council.”
The opponents of the measure faced the awkward task of arguing against increased voter turnout at a time when, nationally, there’s a robust conversation around combating restrictive voting laws. Some opponents of 2E fumbled with rhetoric about the quality of certain votes, prompting comparisons to ongoing suppression efforts against Black voters and historically against women and other groups.
Sam Weaver, a former mayor of Boulder who campaigned against 2E, said he would have been more willing to back the measure if school board races were moved to even years. But either way, he said, he believes the change “will have a relatively minor impact on Boulder power dynamics.”
“This structural change will have the least impact in a setting like Colorado, where we have mail ballots that go to everyone,” he said. “I’m glad it got so much attention. I think it’s an important subject. And I hope more work continues in the city.”
“What would be a bigger change of the political power dynamics in Boulder would be ranked-choice voting for all of council,” he added.
Next year, following the approval of the 2020 Our Mayor Our Choice ballot measure, the city’s voters will elect a city mayor for the first time through a ranked-choice vote.
Weaver said he wants to see the city enact ranked-choice voting for city councilmembers. Under ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of their preference. As a result, candidates have an incentive to appeal to as many voters as possible.
Under Boulder’s current system, candidates have an incentive to align with a political slate, which are essentially political parties that help fund local campaigns.