Jaws may have dropped in Boulder on Tuesday evening when it became clear that two county ballot issues most had believed would coast to easy wins had failed. Ballot Issue 1A, a sales tax extension for county open space, and Ballot Issue 1B, authorizing the county to issue $85 million in bonds for the successful ClimateSmart Loan Program, both failed by narrow margins.
It marks the first time an open space tax has failed since 1989. It was only the second time that ClimateSmart had appeared on the ballot. But the program, which enables the county to issue bonds and to loan that money to both residential and business property owners for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency improvements, has been highly successful by any measure, pumping money into local construction and renewable energy businesses and reducing utility bills. The program is considered so innovative and successful, in fact, that numerous communities in the United States and develop similar efforts.
So what happened?
Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor was surprised to see 1B fail, “given that it passed by a nearly 70-30 margin last year, and has been a very popular, non-controversial program,” he told Boulder Weekly Wednesday morning.
Toor says a number of factors, including a small voter turnout and confusing ballot language may have played a role in the defeat of the ClimateSmart measure.
“It is also a very different election this year — a very small turnout this year compared to a much bigger turnout last year,” he says. “Last year the supporters ran a significant campaign. This time I think there was an assumption that this was not needed, which was clearly a mistake. Unfortunately, the legally required language is confusing legalese, so it is hard to know what the ballot issue is about just by reading the ballot language.
“I think the inclusion of joint bonding with other counties was also confusing and made the bonding number look very large, at a time when people are very nervous about the economy.”
But perhaps the single biggest factor involved in the defeat of both county ballot issues was Longmont’s contentious city council election. Longmont’s election had become a bitter battle between conservatives, the “old guard” who have traditionally held sway over the town’s politics, and progressives, who have moved to Longmont in increasing numbers as a result of Boulder’s high housing costs.
As Longmont’s election results demonstrate, conservative candidates got out the vote.
Election statistics show that the turnout in Longmont was higher than in Boulder and the county as a whole. About 34 percent of county voters who received a ballot returned those ballots. In Boulder, the turnout was only about 29 percent. In Longmont, it was approximately 41 percent.
If the turnout in Longmont had been similar to Boulder’s there would have been 5,490 fewer votes cast. According to unofficial results, the margin of defeat on County Ballot Issue 1A was only 2,568 votes; the difference was even narrower on 1B: 1,190. So it is conceivable that a spike in conservative voters submitting ballots in Longmont could have made the difference on those two ballot measures.
“In such a low turnout election it made a big difference,” Toor says.
In what was the most vitriolic Longmont race, City Council member Karen Benker lost to challenger Katie Witt in the Ward 2 race, an outcome that she attributes largely to the “formidable” amount of funding collected by her opponents and the negative tactics they used.
“They raised a ton of money and they ran a negative campaign, and negative campaigns work,” she says.
The race attracted a 41 percent turnout in Ward 2.
Benker had been targeted by a group called the Longmont Leadership Committee, which was primarily funded by an outside right-wing organization called Western Tradition Partnership. (See the Oct. 29 story, here.)