(Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels)

By Sandy Wiegand, Joining Vision and Action Copyeditor and Writer

Denver’s municipal elections are May 7. Races are for mayor, city auditor, city clerk and recorder, and all 13 City Council seats. Voters will also decide on two ballot measures: the “Right to Survive” initiative and a measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. Last time Denver held a first-round city election, about a quarter of the people eligible to vote did so. (Runoff numbers were even lower.)1 But low turnout is not unusual—in Denver or across the United States.

Potholes, lead paint and homelessness

Low turnout in municipal elections is unfortunate for two big reasons.

First, local leadership can have a bigger effect on people’s day-to-day lives than national leaders do, despite the fact that national elections receive more media attention and have far higher turnout. (Nearly 72 percent of eligible Denver residents voted in the 2016 general election.2)

“The way in which city hall deals with the myriad everyday challenges of municipal life may seem boring until your uncollected garbage draws rats and other vermin, or the wheel of your car is bent in an unfilled pothole… or failure to remediate lead in older neighborhoods permanently diminishes the intellectual capacities of the children who live there,” Professor Sheila Suess Kennedy wrote in a 2015 commentary, Why Local Elections Matter, on the Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequality.org.

Denver is contemplating some major decisions about its future these days, with issues related to growth, gentrification, affordable housing, homelessness and transportation just a few of the most obvious. Denver’s mayor and City Council will lead much of this decision-making. It is likely that many Denver residents—and particularly those involved with local nonprofit and social change efforts—have opinions on these matters that they would like their representatives to share.

Why don’t people vote in city elections?

An article by Esteban L. Hernandez in the Denverite, Who Votes in Denver’s Municipal Elections?, takes a look at voter demographics and considers potential reasons for disparities, reviewing numbers by precinct and council district.

Also investigating this question is Who Votes for Mayor?, a project of Portland State University supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its page on Denver states that in 2015, 59 percent of registered voters over age 65 voted, while just 11.4 percent of registered voters ages 18 to 34 did so.

Political stepping stones

Second, national leaders often begin as local leaders. John Hickenlooper’s road from Denver mayor to Colorado governor to presidential candidate is perhaps the most ready example, but countless individuals have followed similar paths throughout U.S. history.

So by choosing not to choose in local elections, nonvoters not only opt out of local elections but potentially help clear a path for others’ choices to one day hold statewide and national offices.

Where to learn about candidates, issues

Colorado’s use of mail-in ballots hugely simplifies the voting process in our state. What sometimes feels not so simple, though, is finding the information we need to make informed choices when voting. National news comes at us from all angles; local information sometimes requires more effort to find. Luckily, Denver has more resources and coverage than some areas. Here are a few good sources I have found on Denver’s candidates and ballot measures this election:

Council, mayor, clerk and recorder races

  • The Election section of the Denverite has an array of articles focusing on the candidates in specific City Council races, the mayoral race and its debates, and the clerk and recorder race, as well as other interesting and useful election topics. There’s even an article in Spanish on how to vote.
  • Ballotpedia has a page on the mayoral race that includes biographies, campaign themes and “key messages” for top candidates, as well as campaign finance info, endorsements and notes on the candidates’ stances on development-related issues. Ballotpedia also has comprehensive lists of council, auditor (unchallenged), and clerk and recorder candidates but apparently has had little success in persuading them to complete its survey.
  • The Healthier Denver website, meanwhile, has received responses from a significant number of mayoral and council candidates on questions about supervised use sites and the opioid crisis, cash bail, tobacco and e-cigarettes, mental health care, climate change and people experiencing homelessness.

Ballot initiatives

  • Ballotpedia has quite a bit of information on Ordinance 300, the “Right to Survive” initiative, including an explanation of the measure, the background behind it, its full text, and arguments from supporters and opponents. A response to Denver’s law prohibiting unauthorized camping on public and private property, the initiative allows people to rest, shelter themselves, eat or exchange food, and occupy their own legally parked vehicle or any legally parked vehicle with the permission of the owner. The Denverite’s summary of the measure includes links to more statements from supporters and opponents.
  • Ballotpedia also has good information on the psilocybin mushroom initiative, including an explanation of the measure, background on the medical use of and laws on psilocybin, the measure’s full text, and arguments from supporters and opponents. The initiative would decriminalize the use and possession of mushrooms containing the psychedelic compound psilocybin. The topic has captured the attention of the national media, so many national news outlets have also written about it. Here’s a decent article by Business Insider.

Voting info

Need to register or check on your registration? Visit govotecolorado.com. (It’s got info in Spanish, too.) Not sure where to drop off your ballot? Scroll past the calendars on this City and County of Denver page for a list. Links to answer lots of other questions you might have can be found on the Denver Elections Division site. Oh yeah, and if you’re unsure what council district you’re in, you can find it here.

If runoff elections are needed, they’ll take place June 4. As explained by this 5280 primer: For all offices except the at-large council seats, candidates must win a majority of the vote—50 percent plus one vote. If that doesn’t happen, the two candidates who got the most votes have a runoff.

JVA encourages Denver’s changemakers to do all they can to encourage and assist their staff, boards, clients and constituents to vote in the local elections! Outside of Denver? Aurora mayoral and City Council elections are in November. And anytime you could use election info, Ballotpedia is a great place to start.

1 City and County of Denver. Denver, Colorado Historical Election Registration and Turnout. Retrieved from https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/778/documents/VoterInfo/Report_ElectionTurnoutHistorical_2018-11-26.pdf

2 Ibid