As Denver’s municipal election results roll in, residents of the state’s largest city have a lot of explaining to do.
Yes, voter turnout was always expected to be low. Municipal elections rarely attract voters in the same way that presidential years do. That’s a travesty in and of itself. But no matter how you look at it, Denver’s voter turnout this cycle was pathetic — especially given how much cash was plunked down and what’s at stake.
More than $10.3 million was pumped into mayoral campaigns from direct candidate donors and outside groups. Boatloads more money was sunk into city council races and ballot measures. And yet only 33% of all registered Denver voters, and only 38% of all active voters, apparently cared enough to show up at the polls — a figure notably lower than in 2019.
But somehow, this paltry participation is not the most depressing part. As embarrassing as this year’s turnout was, it still somehow managed to exceed both the 2015 and 2011 election tallies. Are you kidding me, Denver?
I know, I know. There’s a lot going on. Off-year elections are ridiculous. Federal politics are a mess. People are busy and burned out post-pandemic. The state legislature is in session. The plethora of candidates was overwhelming. One ballot measure was extremely complicated. On top of everything, there’s no ranked-choice voting.
But seriously, Denver? Only 33% of you care enough about the direction of your city to take a few hours to figure it out? Shame on you.
If you’re wondering why a non-Denver resident cares, as a Coloradan, your voter apathy impacts me directly. Denver is Colorado’s largest city and election results from your part of the state have an outsized impact on policies statewide.
If Denver doesn’t get homelessness and affordable housing right, all of the surrounding areas are impacted. If Denver screws up education or local business opportunities, our state numbers tank overall. And if Denver doesn’t fully prioritize resident well-being and the environment, the whole state can’t meet its goals.
So yes, as a Coloradan, I’m disappointed.
Most of all, low voter turnout in Denver suggests Colorado Democrats should be on high alert. Although municipal elections are not partisan, Denver is one of the state’s strongest blue lights, making it a litmus test of voter enthusiasm in the party. Clearly, enthusiasm is waning.
Especially concerning for Colorado Democrats is a reflection of what I’ve discussed in recent weeks: Colorado’s far left is flirting with failure. After Tuesday’s election, key progressive elected officials and values are on the chopping block.
As I’ve argued, part of this is due to populist tactics that are wearing thin, and I’d even go so far as to suggest that these toxic tactics might be contributing to overall voter apathy by creating a truly exhausting political climate. And for progressives who remain incensed with me for pointing this out, you no longer have to take my word for it: the fact that folks like Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca have landed in a runoff is proof.
The other large red flag is that low voter turnout in a Democratic hotbed is a sign that any good political analyst ought to reexamine the popular narrative that a hyper-focus on homelessness, crime and housing will spur voter enthusiasm. Especially going into the 2024 elections, something has got to change as voters staying home can influence elections just as much as voters who show up.
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Overall, results of Denver’s election have put the state in a worse spot. No matter the runoff results in June, whoever becomes the next mayor of Denver does not hold the majority of voter enthusiasm, unless of course you count voter apathy.
At this point, even if turnout greatly increases in the June runoff, and I sincerely hope it does, key issues have already been decided after this election has eliminated most of the mayoral candidates — a decision made by only a third of the city’s residents.
So if you live in Denver and voted, thank you. But if you live in Denver and didn’t vote, what gives? The rest of us are counting on you.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio
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