Now that Aspen’s municipal election takes place on the first Tuesday in March (March 5 this year) as opposed to the first Tuesday in May, our visitors get to experience the city’s penchant for local politics, whether they want to or not.
Every community has its political issues, and there is certainly nothing improper about having an election when more voters are actually physically in town. But when locals are busy with their everyday lives, working multiple jobs, doing their best to keep Aspen’s visitors — who come here to escape their everyday lives — happy, putting election politics in the mix for daily media consumption seems miscalculated. And let’s face it, more so than other communities, the renowned resort town that is Aspen has its moments when local issues become national embarrassments
We’ve thrown red paint on fur clad tourists (yes that was a long time ago). We’ve drilled for hot water to use for snow-melting purposes (no I’m not making that up). We’ve sued the gas company because natural gas isn’t as dense at 8,000 feet as it is at sea level (I’m not making that up either, we lost of course). We’ve permitted the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of downtown parking over multiple years (that sources tell me was the worst kept secret in city hall). That’s just a few embarrassing examples that come to mind immediately.
In that context, scheduling elections, which can become contentious, during a busy and economically vital tourist season just seems a little too much like tempting fate.
Proponents of the charter amendment (Aspen 2A of 2018) that moved Aspen’s election from the off-season to the ski and snowboard season argued that such a change will increase voter participation. The rationale? More voters are in Aspen during the busy winter ski and snowboard season, therefore more will vote. Enough voters agreed, so the charter was amended and the election date was changed.
But, will voters really participate more in the election now that it occurs during the winter tourist season rather than its time-honored place during the spring shoulder season? It’s a bit of a retro move if you ask me. In our technology-driven age when we can use the internet to transact almost any kind of business at any time from any place, Aspen voters give a nod to the importance of physical presence when it comes to the civic act of voting. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just an interesting development.
Here is the potential rub. When locals are working 60-plus hours a week, are they really in a better position to study and understand potentially complex ballot measures and effectively evaluate the positions of mayor and council candidates than they are in late April when our visitors have gone home and work schedules are not so all consuming? And given the now multi-decade national trend in making elections accessible through the use of absentee and mail-in ballots, and early voting, is there really sufficient benefit from a March election to offset the cost of mixing local election politics with the winter tourist season? In my mind it’s an open question.
On the other side of that question, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is value to increasing voter access to candidates in the weeks leading up to an election. It’s also reasonable to assume that there are more voters in town in February and early March during the height of the winter tourist season than there are in April and early May after the mountains close and locals scatter. A more informed electorate is always a good thing, so it seems reasonable that the physical presence of more voters provides a benefit to a March election date.
But how much time do registered voters have this time of year to seriously evaluate candidate positions and election issues? And what is the substantive difference of their spending a few more weeks of that time here rather than in Costa Rica or Hawaii, or wherever they may flee for downtime once the spring shoulder season begins?
And of course, a tourist-season election raises the politically incorrect question of seasonal workers, part-time residents, and voting. It’s important to remember that in the United States we are each permitted to choose one place as our residence for voting purposes. So, for purposes of this column we will just assume that everyone: voters, candidates, seasonal workers and everyone else who is here over the election date but is registered to vote elsewhere, intends to comply with both the letter and the spirit of election laws, and leave it at that.
The good news is that after a few election cycles Aspen will have real voter participation data to use in analyzing the foundational question of how many registered voters cast ballots on Aspen’s new tourist-season election date in comparison to the prior shoulder-season elections. The issues of pre-election voter access to candidates and how much time voters spend considering election issues will be harder to answer.
If voter participation increases significantly, it will be hard to argue against the benefit of changing the election date to March from May. If voter participation is flat or even goes down, the increased benefit of an election during the busy winter tourist season resurfaces as a salient issue. After all, one should not risk airing dirty laundry in sight of guests without good reason.
Paul Menter’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org