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Guest opinion: Celeste Landry: How to encourage civic-duty voting in Boulder’s odd-year elections

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By Celeste Landry

You may have heard that Boulder City Council wants more voter participation in council elections. One way to do this is to move council elections to even years, which historically have higher voter turnout.

Alternatively, the council could take a tip from the Land Down Under and actively nudge voters to exercise their civic duty to vote in odd years as well as even years.

One argument that has been made for a move to even-year elections is that voters are “disenfranchised” in odd years, but “disenfranchised” means that a person is deprived of the right to vote. In Colorado, everyone who is eligible to vote in even years is also eligible to vote in odd years. “Drop-off” is the correct term to describe a decline in turnout between two different elections.

Moving council elections to even years has the following noted problems and concerns:

  • Drop-off between presidential election years and the even-year elections two years later
  • County clerk resistance to implementation during a presidential election
  • A multiple-sheet ballot, if needed, means higher printing and postage costs
  • A one-time change in the terms for mayor and council members
  • Increased drop-off for the remaining odd-year Colorado Revised Statutes elections:
    • school board elections, 22-31-104 CRS
    • state ballot fiscal measures, 1-41-102 CRS
    • local ballot measures, 1-41-103 CRS

To drive home the point that voters are not actually disenfranchised in odd years and, indeed, to encourage turnout in odd years, Boulder could implement civic-duty voting — similar to Australia’s compulsory voting,in which every registered voter is expected to vote.

Compulsory voting typically involves a penalty for not voting. The penalty could be rather mild — not financial, not depriving anyone of their right to vote in the future — just a nudge to vote.  How about simplyposting the non-voters’ names and the date of the election on the city of Boulder website? The council may want to include extra identifying information, such as the middle name, the age and/or the address of the non-voter to prevent a voter with a name similar to a non-voter from being accidentally listed.

To avoid having one’s name listed as not having civic-duty voted, a registered voter need only return their ballot. A blank ballot returned in its signed envelope would count as voted.

The council could choose to post the names of all non-voters in every election or only in odd-year elections or a targeted subset of non-voters, such as non-voters between the ages of 18 and 30 or non-voters who updated their voter registration in some way, e.g., address or affiliation, in, for example, the 50 months (4 years, 2 months) prior to the November election. In countries with compulsory voting, exceptions are often made for certain demographic groups, such as those over the age of 75.

The list of registered voters who cast and don’t cast ballots (except for confidential voters) is public information. Apparently, nothing is stopping an individual from publishing non-voters’ names right now, except for the expense in time and money to do so. An official city posting would carry more weight, however. The city would also want to educate voters ahead of the election about the penalty for not casting a ballot, perhaps as part of the ballot instructions.

Boulder can implement civic-duty voting immediately. No charter amendment would be necessary to implement this civic-duty voting. No vote of the people. No protracted discussions with the county clerk.

Just as this proposal could be turned on with a simple vote of council, it could likewise be turned off with a simple vote of council. This proposal is low risk with a high potential for reward. Plus, Boulder would collectvaluable voter data.

Civic-duty voting, also known as compulsory voting or universal voting, has become a hot topic. It is seen as a straightforward way to fight back against recent voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts.

Boulder, let’s be a pioneer in the movement for civic-duty voting!

Celeste Landry lives in Boulder. 

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