Denver’s municipal election turnout has long been pretty bad. Maybe things will be better this year?

Do you have a good strategy to get your friends interested in democracy?
7 min. read
Note: The 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022 statewide elections included races for governor.
Data Source: Denver Elections Division

Some in our state have suggested Denver's mayor may be the most powerful politician in Colorado, so you might think people would be pretty excited about voting this year's monumental municipal election.

Sorry, idealists, you are wrong -- so far.

As of Monday (a week from Election Day), fewer than 6% of ballots -- or 25,311 out of 453,242 -- had been returned, according to city election data. In 2019, the last time we voted for mayor, almost 47,000 ballots had already been returned by this point, though this time around, the election is a full month earlier and there are 16 candidates on the ballot trying to be mayor.

City data suggests turnout in municipal-only elections hasn't risen above 40% of registered voters since 1995. It's striking that in the 2011 election - the last time the mayor's seat was wide open - only 26% of registered voters cast ballots in the general and only 28% bothered with the runoff. That's par for the course in our recent history.

That said, Denver Elections expects a little bump this time around.

"We are expecting a higher than normal turnout," Lucille Wenegieme, spokesperson for Denver's Elections Division, told us.

One reason why, she said: The city's new Fair Elections Fund (FEF) system has engaged a ton of potential voters. 47 of 58 candidates across all of this year's races have signed up for the fund, which gives nine-to-one matches on small donations made by Denver residents. To stay competitive, candidates who opted in have had to talk to a lot of locals, instead of courting big-money donors (for the most part).

"The Fair Elections Fund is definitely moving things in the pre-ballot-drop landscape," Wenegieme said. "We are seeing a lot more folks donate."

The FEF has also allowed more people to enter this year's races, and Wenegieme added she expects the large candidate pools have ginned up extra interest. She said people are also just a little more plugged in these days.

"People are starting to look at their government with a little more detail post-pandemic," she told us.

Denver Elections needs to keep tabs on potential turnout so they're ready to process ballots as quickly as they can. Preparation will only get them so far, though, because Wenegieme said Denverites have increasingly cast their ballots at the last minute. She expects that trend to continue, since people want to make sure their favorite candidates don't drop out after they've voted.

Elizabeth Ngirailab and Bria Daniel pose for a portrait with their stickers on Super Tuesday at the Hiawatha Davis recreation center in Northeast Park Hill, March 3, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

So, why is turnout so abysmal?

Earlier this year, Denverite reporters set out to talk to dozens of people about their top priorities in this election. While most people we spoke to did have issues on their mind, not everyone was planning to cast a ballot.

"I don't think my vote will make much of a difference," Jesus Trevizo, a longtime Westwood resident, told us back in February. "At the end of the day, it's kind of just wishful thinking."

Even though he's pretty tuned into national politics, Trevizo said participating in presidential elections has felt like throwing away a vote. It's one reason why he doesn't plan to bother with our municipal races.

David Jones, who we met at Paco Sanchez Park, said something similar.

"It seems government does their own thing, not really worried about us," he told us. "What's his name? Hancock? Back in 2009, was talking about reducing homelessness and it just got bigger, so can't really believe anything they say."

Robert Preuhs is the chair of the Metro State University of Denver's political science program, where he's taught for 15 years. He said research shows people generally tend to trust local governments more than the feds, but they tend to vote more often in federal elections.

Denver's turnout is much better in presidential elections, especially the last few, but we aren't alone in less-than-enthusiastic civic engagement. Nationwide, voter turnout generally lags behind our international peers.

While voters' feelings about national politics could influence their decisions to vote locally, there's a lot more that impacts participation rates.

"Higher levels of poverty, lower levels of income, racial disparities in voting turnout, more mobile populations," he listed, "all of those things combine outside of the general lack of interest that we might contribute some of that lower voter turnout to."

If you're preoccupied with paying your rent, or if you're a renter who moves around every year or so, you may not have the brain space to care about a local election, he said. It's one way that Denver's affordability crisis could create a vicious cycle of downward civic engagement.

And as for Wenegieme's prediction that the Fair Election Fund could drive up participation, Preuhs said it could go the opposite way if the sheer number of candidates creates a level of "choice paralysis." We'll have to wait and see.

Perhaps the biggest reason that people participate less often in local elections is that they maybe aren't rancorous enough. National turnout in presidential elections has risen in the last decade simply because the nation is so polarized, he said.

"If the other party wins the, world is going to end, so it's worth voting," he said. "For local elections, however, it's tougher to place the blame or to get a good sense of where a different direction is gong to come from."

While there's plenty of discontent in Denver, many candidates have presented themselves in similar ways, and there are few binary choices in this election. That alone, Preuhs said, could turn people off.

Can we do anything to bring more people to the polls?

Evan Weissman, co-founder of the civic-engagement engine Warm Cookies of the Revolution, said he thinks poor turnout is really a result of poor engagement outside of elections. His work with Warm Cookies is all about connecting people to government's day-to-day activity, so they feel regularly engaged and will be ready to participate when it's time.

"The real stuff is what happens every day, even though it's boring and the competition is pop culture," he said. "If you actually interact with government, I think you start to see the nuances. You start to see: ok these people aren't being a******* to me. They're maybe part of a system that's messed up, or the system is complicated, but I have some options."

While Weissman doesn't have ideas for a "quick fix" to get your friends interested this late in our election cycle, he does have thoughts about longterm culture building. Maybe everyone who goes to a Red Rocks show should get a flyer that tells how the venue is run by the city, one way to draw lines between entertainment and the public funds that make it possible. Maybe we should have City Council meetings at Civic Center Eats, the seasonal food truck rally in Civic Center Park.

Denver's participatory budgeting process, which gave residents a chance to vote on how to spend $2 million on parks and infrastructure, was one such project that Warm Cookies helped shepherd.

"You could make connections constantly for people who aren't engaged in civic life," Weissman told us. "Those types of tweaks [could] show how civic life is something that's every day."

Preuhs said Denver and Colorado are already employing every classic playbook strategy to make it easier to participate: we have mail-in ballots and automatically register people to vote. He said we could peer-pressure people to turn in a ballot if we start publishing the names of people who didn't vote; while that'd probably be really effective, it would never fly with the public.

"I'd like to say there is this clear, obvious policy that we can put forward, but I think actually, yeah it's a little Pollyanna," he told us. "It's a tough tough battle, and encouraging people to vote just doesn't work that well."

Weissman agreed that you really can't "pester" people to participate. Maybe try throwing a voting party instead?

Let us know if you do that, and remind people that they can use our handy voter guide!

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