Every four years mailboxes across Denver fill with candidate fliers, campaign workers knock on neighborhood doors and candidates explain why they’re best suited to steer the city.
We’re there now, with yet-to-be-finalized ballot packed with dozens of people vying to be mayor, sit on the City Council and even a few faces looking to take over as city clerk and recorder or auditor.
The municipal election this year is set for April 4, months after the rest of the state took to the polls in November to vote for their representation in the legislature, school boards or to decide local ballot initiatives.
Why an entirely separate election?
First, because it’s been that way for as long as anybody can remember. Denver’s guiding document, the city charter, mandates that municipal elections be held in the spring every four years.
Denver’s tradition of holding its elections in the spring is at least a century old, probably older, according to Lucille Wenegieme, a strategic advisor for Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul López. It’s so old that their office no longer has any documentation on hand to pinpoint an enactment date and would instead have to refer to historical experts.
The elections had been held on the first Tuesday of May since 1995 but that changed after voters in 2021 agreed – by a landslide – to shift the date to the first Tuesday in April. López asked voters to move the elections a month earlier to ensure out-of-state voters weren’t disenfranchised if the city’s elections go to a runoff, like in 2019.
López, who was elected that year in a runoff of his own that year, had also considered whether to propose moving the city’s elections to November to coincide with the state’s schedule but he and a committee asked to study the issue decided against it. The overwhelming support to move elections to April rather than May, he said, shows that Denverites have grown accustomed to their spring elections.
The logic behind enacting spring elections seemed to be, López estimated, that they wouldn’t interfere with state elections each November.
State and federal elections held in the fall are partisan, Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn noted.
That means candidates must earn the nomination of their respective political parties as Democrats or Republicans, for example.
But Denver’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, meaning candidates do not declare a party.
Keeping the two separate benefits voters, Flynn said.
“Your city government is probably the most important to you on a daily basis and should not be down toward the bottom of a ballot that also has candidates for president, Senate, Congress, you name it,” Flynn said.
“That allows the public to focus on the issues and the candidates without having to think about Trump/Biden or Polis/Ganahl,” Flynn added.
Denver isn’t alone in holding spring municipal elections, Colorado Springs, for one, does as well.
López doesn’t see an issue keeping in the tradition of Denver’s spring elections. Because the city, like the rest of the state, uses mail-in ballots voters aren’t inconvenienced much, he said.
Plus, the more often voters participate in democracy, the better, López said.
“It’s our job to keep voters engaged in the process,” he said.
Even in years without municipal elections people cast their ballots multiple times a year, López noted. Like in 2020 they voted in a presidential primary in March, a statewide primary in July and then a presidential election in November.
A standalone spring election does cost a bit more money, López said.
The upcoming April election is estimated to cost about $2 million (0.12% of the city’s $1.66 billion budget for 2023), compared to about $3.6 million for the November election, Wenegieme said.
Should the city combine the two, the cost for November elections would still go up, López said, so the savings wouldn’t be worth the benefits of a standalone election.
“Out of all the places we can save in this city, is that where we’re going to pinch pennies?” López said. “What is the price of democracy?”
In 2021, when López’s office was considering how to shift the election dates, it also considered whether to use a new voting method like ranked-choice voting. But they decided against it and there aren’t any proposals currently on the table to take another look at the issue.
Flynn opposed a shift to ranked-choice voting then and still holds that position.
He said the possibility would have been a disaster and as an example pointed no further than the crowded mayoral ballot, for which at least 17 candidates have qualified. With ranked-choice voting, Denverites would wind up with a mayor that only garnered 20% or 25% of the total vote.
“Guaranteed,” Flynn said. “Guaranteed.”
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