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Off-year elections often result in lower voter turnout despite big tax questions

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Posted at 6:45 AM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 11:25:57-04

DENVER — The 2021 election is right around the corner and although it doesn’t have all of the pomp and circumstance of a presidential or midterm election, it does feature important ballot questions that could have long-lasting fiscal impacts on voters.

There are three statewide questions on the ballot this year all dealing with taxes. There’s also a handful of local ballot measures that could affect everything from school funding to money for fire departments, police departments and more.

“They can affect how much you pay in property taxes each year. They can affect the quality of the roads. They can affect how the schools are run and who runs them. Some of those actually have a much more immediate effect on our lives,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

Here’s a look at what you need to know before heading to the polls.

Election need-to-knows

Ballots began to be mailed out to voters on Oct. 8. People who wish to vote can register all the way up to and through election day.

Oct. 26 is the last day ballots should be mailed back to ensure that they make it in time to be counted.

Voters who miss that date can still drop off the ballot they received in the mail at a ballot box or polling center.

READ MORE: Election 2021: Breaking down the three Colorado statewide ballot issues

Polling centers are also open for people who prefer to vote in person. You can track your ballot to make sure it has been counted through BallotTrax.

The election is set for Nov. 2. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

What are off-year elections for anyway?

Off-year elections happen on odd-numbered years.

In Colorado, there are no major party elections, no presidential or gubernatorial races and no state and federal positions typically up for grabs.

There are, however, several local races on the ballot such as school board or city council seats.

Statewide, voters may also be asked questions on the ballot that pertain to taxes. Since 1992, when the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was put into place, it has been up to Colorado voters to either approve or disapprove of new taxes or increasing taxes.

“These are issues voters actually should think about. These are pocketbook issues that can raise your income taxes, they can raise your property taxes, they can lower those as well,” said Robert Preuhs, chair of the political science department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The only statewide questions allowed on an off-year ballot are tax questions. Propositions require a simple majority to pass while constitutional amendments require a super majority, or 55% of the vote, to pass.

Who typically participates in these elections?

Turnout for off-year elections tends to be much lower than midterms or general elections.

“Turnout on off-year elections is about half of what we see in general elections,” Preuhs said.

During the 2020 Election, Colorado voters turned out in record numbers; roughly 87% of eligible voters returned their ballots. Unaffiliated voters turned out in the highest numbers followed by Democrats and then Republicans.

The 2019 Election also brought out higher-than-average turnout for an off-year, with 37% of eligible voters turning out.

Turnout typically depends on what issues are on the ballot and the amount of money spent advertising the issues.

As a result, fewer voices are having more weight in the decisions that are made for the state.

“Fewer people are likely to vote in these elections means that your vote makes more of a difference,” Masket said.

In previous off-year elections, voters tend to be somewhat older, well-educated and somewhat wealthier, according to Masket.

They also tend to pay much more attention to state and local politics and tend to be a more polarized and politically unusual.

“Republicans who actually are outnumbered by unaffiliated and Democrats in the state actually vote at slightly higher rates,” Preuhs said.

These voters are more likely to approve of questions that ask about tax cuts or limited spending. They’re also more likely to vote against spending increases.

Low turnout as a voter strategy

In some ways, Preuhs and Masket say low voter turnout was the whole point of putting TABOR questions on an off-year ballot.

The law’s creators were in favor of capping the growth of government and giving voters more of a voice. Since more fiscally conservative voters tend to participate at higher rates during these elections, these TABOR questions have a better chance of passing.

“If you’re in favor of reducing taxes or limiting government, it’s certainly a good strategy or at least a viable strategy,” Preuhs said.

So far, that strategy has paid off, limiting the growth of the state government over the years, though there have been some changes to TABOR over the years, such as requiring a super majority for constitutional amendments.

Changes to what’s on the ballot

Both political science professors have also noticed a change to the types of questions that are appearing on the ballot and the efforts behind them.

Preuhs said over the years, big interest groups have started to get more involved, hiring paid petition signature gatherers to help get questions on the ballot.

“We have this initiative process that should be citizen-lead and should be widespread about really important issues in the state, but in reality, it’s a fairly top down process where we have a whole slew of interests,” Preuhs said.

He has also seen a general trend overtime of more money coming in from out of state, even during these off-year elections.

Masket, meanwhile, said he has noticed a somewhat more aggressive use of these odd-year elections to put large spending initiatives on the ballot, which voters seem to be more receptive of lately.

Why it’s important to participate

The ballot questions during off-year elections can be complicated; not only is the ballot language itself tricky to understand but also how it affects people’s individual circumstances.

The complexity of the questions themselves could be one reason many voters tend to stay away from these elections.

“When it is complex people often don’t feel like voting. They would just rather not weigh in and if they do, they just sometimes feel like voting against something that’s complicated,” Masket said.

Nevertheless, both political science professors said it’s important for voters to take the time to research the questions.

They say the votes of people who participate in these elections have more weight and more of a chance to make a difference since fewer people are casting ballots.

“Don’t get frustrated, dig a little deeper and participate in these off-year elections,” Preuhs said.