If a citizen-initiated charter amendment that would move the Aspen municipal election from May to March passes next month, it will usher in a new calendar for council and mayoral campaigns that will play out over the peak of the winter season.
In the upcoming 2019 municipal election, Aspen voters will pick a new mayor to replace the term-limited Steve Skadron and decide who will sit in two council seats. One of those seats is held by Bert Myrin, who is eligible to run for re-election, while the second seat is held by the term-limited Adam Frisch and thus will be open.
Should Ballot Question 2A pass, potential candidates will be able to pick up nominating petitions from the city clerk’s office beginning Dec. 4. The deadline to return the petitions will be Dec. 26, a Wednesday and the day after Christmas. Ballots in the mail-in election will go out the week of Feb. 11. Election day will be March 5, and then the first Tuesday after the first Monday of March every odd-numbered year thereafter — smack dab in the heart of the winter ski season between Presidents Day and spring break.
That represents a significant shift in the public’s seasonal consciousness from the existing election schedule that concludes on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. Campaigns often take until April to heat up and the vote concludes during what is one of the lowest occupancy weeks on the calendar — when not only tourists are absent but when a sizable chunk of the year-round population tends to plan trips out of town.
Data cited by the 2A campaign from the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant show that in 13 of the last 14 years before 2017, the lowest daily flow of the year has fallen during the time between when early voting starts and the May election election day.
For this reason, proponents of 2A, who are on the ballot after gathering more than 800 signatures in June and July, say moving the election to a busier time on the calendar is a surefire way to increase participation. This would have myriad benefits, according to campaign organizer Skippy Mesirow. With so many local issues decided by a handful of votes — 2,500 total voters in a city election, out of more than 6,000 registered, is considered high turnout under the current system — the public’s faith and trust in election outcomes will increase with greater participation, he said. He also estimated that an electorate that includes more people will lead to candidates who “more fully represent the community.”
Mesirow said a vast majority of the people he has spoken with are in favor of moving the election to March. He scoffed at the handful of public comments made against his initiative as being in favor of voter disenfranchisement. However, Mesirow conceded that a concern over elections competing for oxygen with the winter high season and all its activities is valid.
His answer is that governing is a year-round job that also takes place in the high season, so applicants for office should be able to campaign during that time. It might turn out candidates that are better suited for the job, he said.
Mesirow said concerns that a March election would make it easier for seasonal workers to vote, thus swinging electoral outcomes in favor of resort interests over community interests, are unfounded. Continuing to disenfranchise what he estimated to be around 1,500 year-round residents who skip town around early May as hedge against this fear “is a poor bargain to make,” he said.
He added that if someone is new to this community, registers to vote legally and thus gives up their right to vote someplace else and then turns out at the polls, those are legitimate voices to be included in an election.
“If you think those people shouldn’t vote, then you are for voter suppression,” Mesirow said.
He added that he doesn’t see moving the election as a young-versus-old issue and that Aspen’s off-season exodus cuts across all demographics.
So far, the 2A campaign has kept a low profile. Mesirow said that is by design as the proponents decided against soliciting campaign donations and running ads. However, volunteer door knockers are making their rounds to talk up the initiative.
Mesirow, who ran a losing campaign for city council in 2017, added that while he is likely to run for office again, he is undecided on whether or not he plans to run next year, whenever the election may be.
Ballots for the upcoming fall election — crowded with 13 state ballot questions, gubernatorial, congressional and statehouse races and multiple local questions of high impact — go out next week. The votes will be counted on Nov. 6.