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Every fourth May, Denverites have the opportunity to cast a ballot for the officials who, arguably, affect their daily lives most: The mayor, who proposes the city’s budget, makes citywide appointments, and sets policy agendas (like Denver’s battle plan to make your rent, well, affordable); district and at-large city council members, whose duties span presiding over zoning changes to passing local ordinances; the County Clerk and Recorder, who is responsible for ensuring you, your neighbors, and even Downtown Detention Center and Denver County Jail inmates get their ballots on time and that they are subsequently counted; and the auditor, who acts as a sort of elected watchdog on the mayor and supporting offices. And, as is the case in midterm and presidential elections, voters will be faced with a number of ballot measures—from effectively overturning Denver’s urban camping ban to decriminalizing psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms).
In short, city elections are important, even if participation in them is lacking. In Denver’s last city election in 2015, only about 24 percent of registered voters turned out. Compare that to the 2018 midterms, when 64 percent of registered Denver voters cast their ballots, and the 2016 presidential election, which saw a whopping 71 participation rate among Denverites, and it’s evident that local elections are often not sexy enough to attract voters.
But this year feels different. For starters, voters will navigate an uncommonly crowded ballot. More Denverites—from all corners of the Mile High City—are running for office than in 2015. Additionally, this year’s mayoral race comes on the heels of Mayor Michael Hancock being accused of sexually harassing a female police officer who worked in his security detail (Hancock publicly apologized for the “inappropriate and unprofessional” texts he sent to the officer in 2012), and there are a number of qualified candidates vying for his position.
This is also Denver’s last non-publicly funded city-wide election—voters approved a change to the status quo in November that creates a public campaign fund that leverages advantageous small donation matching to incentivize grassroots fundraising—and the old system is going out with a bang. Hancock has already amassed a war chest of more than $1 million, and his most monied opponent, RiNo redeveloper Jamie Giellis, is raising funds at about the same pace (though she’s still behind Hancock, at a total of $330,461).
If that’s not enough to send you to the polls, the ballot measures just might. Five have made it onto this year’s ballot by way of citizen petition. The City Council had until March 4 to refer initiatives, so stay tuned for our complete guide to what you’ll see on the ballot.
Every decision matters, and Denver, you’ve sure got a lot to make. Here’s your introduction to the May 7, 2019 election.
So, who’s running?
A whopping 65 candidates have tossed their hats in the ring for public offices; 10 for mayor; 42 for Denver’s 11 equally populated districts, nine for the two at-large council representatives (council members who represent the whole city); four for clerk and recorder; and one for auditor, incumbent Tim O’Brien.
The influx has brought in a unique cast of candidates. In a trend that has taken hold both nationwide and across the state, more women are running for office than in previous years. According to Denver Elections Division senior public information officer Alton Dillard, 41 percent of candidates (27 total) across all city races are women, up from 38 percent (19 or 50 total candidates) in 2015. Cannabis industry player Scott Durrah made a splash with his bid for the district one council seat. Kalyn Heffernan is making history as the first queer, disabled person to run for mayor. And term-limited Paul Lopez (district three), who was born and raised on Denver’s westside and has served as a sort of institutional memory of Denver before the post-Recession gentrification boom, must vacate his Council seat, and is taking a run for clerk and recorder.
No party, no problem
City-level offices are party-less. That is to say, candidates don’t caucus within their party for its nomination, and their party affiliations are not listed on the ballot. Candidates are free to disclose their affiliation on their own, but generally speaking, party politics just don’t play into local elections like they do in state and federal races.
“I’ve been here 13 years, and I’ve never really heard anyone running for municipal office get into their party-affiliation a whole lot,” says Dillard. But he clarified candidates certainly can speak about their party as much as they want, they just usually don’t.
What’s a runoff?
To be elected to any city office (except the council’s two at-large seats), candidates must win a majority of the vote—that’s 50 percent plus one vote. If no candidate wins a majority (that is, if the top candidate earns less than 50 percent of the total vote), the top two vote-getters go to a runoff election. This year’s runoff election, should it be triggered for any office, is slated for June 4, and with the number of candidates on the ticket, Dillard says to expect it.
Runoffs happen at both municipal and district levels. It’s tough to generalize how often runoffs take place because they can occur across the range of offices on the Denver ballot. For example, in 2011, a Mayoral runoff was triggered between Hancock and his top challenger, former state senator Chris Romer. In 2015, runoffs were triggered in council districts 2, 7, 10, and 11.
To make sure you’re registered and ready to return your ballot, head the Denver Elections website. Even if just 24 percent of voters turn out, their choices will impact 100 percent of the city.
Editor’s note, 3/11/19: This article was updated to reflect that a proposed initiative to raise the minimum wage for workers at Denver International Airport was pulled from the ballot by proponents.