What's the Matter with Boulder?

- Jesse Kumin

"At Large - Plurality" epitomizes corrupt election design.

48.5     80     100

In the 2017 Boulder City Council Election,

with 48.5% of the total votes, PLAN Boulder backed candidates

won 80% of the open city council seats

which gave them 100% of the power.

51.5% of the votes were “wasted” votes.


At Large - Plurality elections are illegal and morally corrupt.

At Large - Plurality elections, aka "Block Voting" are proven methods of discrimination, repeatedly found in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. White supremacists have used At Large - Plurality as a tool to discriminate against minorities for a long time. At Large - Plurality became their go-to method of discrimination after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Courts continue to find issues with the At Large - Plurality system.

• In Dillard v. Crenshaw County 1987  "A federal district court found that hundreds of Alabama districts intentionally employed at-large electoral methods to discriminate against Black voters. Because of that litigation, 176 jurisdictions settled and adopted some form of district voting. Following Dillard, 183 jurisdictions throughout Alabama ultimately abandoned their discriminatory at-large method of elections..."

In Brown v. Board of Commissioners in 1989 At Large - Plurality was described as a tool of white supremacists in Chattanooga, TN.

• At Large - Plurality should have gone away forever when in 2004 the US Supreme Court decided Charleston County v. United States.

• In 2017 Jones County, NC was forced to drop At Large - Plurality by a lawsuit over the exact same racist violation as the Charleston County case.

At Large - Plurality has been a favored tool used by racists to discriminate against blacks, to keep undesirables off of city councils and county commissions, to keep pesky minorities underrepresented, marginalized and out of power.

Please explain to me, how does PLAN-Boulder or anyone else, justify using white supremacist tactics to stay in power?

Narrow definition of a minority

Court decisions have held that At Large - Plurality elections discriminate by race, violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but have not extended the definition of a discriminated class to other types of minorities. Political organizations continue to use the same At Large - Plurality election scheme to skew election results, to diminish the representation of ideological opponents and in Boulder's case, suppress a socio-economic class that happens to be the majority, from having any representation at all. At Large - Plurality elections, across time, geography and ideology, are designed to discriminate against and consistently leave large demographic slices of voters completely unrepresented. At Large - Plurality "block" voting is color blind. The minority can be any minority, not necessarily a racial minority.

"These are people who for various philosophical reasons enjoy giving concentrated power to a select few... most commonly because they perceive this concentration of disproportional power as benefitting themselves or their allies." - Kelsey Hannan


Elites use electoral systems to marginalize competition

Elected officials don't need to represent the people they've structurally excluded from representation. White supremacists in the Jim Crow South used this strategy. If the problem of Jim Crow could be left unacknowledged and didn't exist, no remedy was necessary. They didn't need federal troops, changes in election law to address voter suppression, the end of Jim Crow. No, you can't vote. You've been marginalized, and worse. When known issues like Climate Change don't exist, when issues don't fit elected officials' agendas, those issues don't need remedies; the issue and the people the issue affects, can be ignored.

Dillon's Rule

State preemptive laws obstruct change and Grassroots Democracy at the local level. "State constitutions vary in the level of power they grant to local governments. However, Dillon's Rule states that if there is a reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred to a local government, then the power has not been conferred." It would seem, more often than not, states hold back most of the power over local elections, frozen in time somewhere in the past, not available to local governments.

How is one party rule implemented?

Most decision making can be controlled at the point when executive and legislative members are chosen - elections. All minorities can be excluded from representation in the decision making process at elections. Conflated elections and decision making can be predetermined through four primary election system design variables:

1) Distort who votes: voter suppression, gerrymandered districts, off year and non-November elections.

2) Present voters with a narrow, predetermined choice they can vote for: candidate suppression, party suppression.

3) Distort representation: one vote per district, Single Member Districts, At Large - Plurality "block" voting. US Senate.

4) Distort results through vote counting: First Past the Post (FPTP, aka plurality), Electoral College.

There are more variables than that. For a more detailed list, see the Issues page.

Over the centuries, the elites who run the United States for fun and profit, have designed and constructed multi-layered comprehensive systems to control election outcomes and obstruct change. The issues with US elections and government are multi-layered, pervasive, systemic and persistent. The only way to fix these issues is systemic reform.

"If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu." - Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Boulder serves well as a case study. If we can figure out how to bring fair representation to one home rule city, we can apply the same strategy to 22,000+ other home rule cities across the country. Boulder may not be the best place to start. It may be easier to prototype proportional representation in a smaller or more ethnically diverse Home Rule city or county.

The mechanics of predetermined elections: start with voter suppression

Boulder holds city council elections every two years, in odd numbered years when voter participation is lowest. Most years voter participation in odd year elections is 35 - 40%. There’s a socio-economic component to Boulder’s discrimination as well. All of the city council members live in owner occupied single family detached houses, mostly on the west side of town. Holding off year elections is a form of voter suppression, eliminating most of the 51% of the city that rents from representation. About 32% of the city residents are students at the U. of Colorado. Nearly all rent privately owned apartments or homes, or live in rental University housing. Very few renters vote in off year elections. National trends show young and poor people vote at much lower rates than older, wealthier demographics. Detached Single Family home owners significantly outvote renters/students in odd year elections. Compounded by the At Large - Plurality election system, renters/students, 51% of Boulder's residents, consistently have zero representation on the Boulder City Council, about 5 decades now.

... compounded with At Large - Plurality Voting.

5 city council members are elected every two years: (4) four year terms and the fifth place winner with a two year term. To maintain control, PLAN - Boulder County (PBC) needs to maintain a 5 - 4 majority. While giving the appearance of a democracy, a consistent 5 - 4 majority gives PBC 100% of the control over city council, in the same way a 53 - 47 majority gives Republicans 100% of the control over the US Senate. Anyone who steps out of line during their term loses PBC support, making reelection difficult to impossible. It feels like a democracy, we have elections at least once a year, but the results tell a different story. Due to "At Large - Plurality” elections, the city of Boulder has had one party rule for 44 years in a row (1975 - 2019).

PBC uses At Large - Plurality as one major tool in their toolbox to dominate election outcomes and stay in power. There are other tools they use as well, but At Large - Plurality is the big hammer. At Large - Plurality block voting is designed to skew outcomes and diminish minority representation. In the most recent city council election in November, 2017, with 48.5% of the total vote, PBC backed candidates won 80% (4 of 5) of the available city council seats and 100% of the power. 80% of the seats with 48.5% of the vote is 65% greater representation than justified, or PBC would have won under a Proportional Representation system. Because they'll have 3 holdovers in the next election in 2019, PBC only needs 2 wins of the next 5 seats to maintain control.

PLAN - Boulder's opponents, the New Urbanist coalition of Better Boulder and Open Boulder backed slate, plus two independent new urbanist candidates, received 49.3% of the vote, but they fractured the vote. At Large - Plurality behaves like Single Member Districts, with a winner-take-all result. More voter choice, normally a good thing, fractures the vote, creating a Spoiler Effect. The New Urbanists received more votes but won only 20% of the seats. That’s what At Large - Plurality does. It does not accurately reflect voter intent; At Large - Plurality purposefully wastes a large percentage of votes. At Large - Plurality frequently results in diminished minority representation. These are known design features; that's why status quo forces, elites, favor At Large - Plurality to stay in power. I detailed the results and how the Spoiler Effect works in this 2017 Boulder City Council.pdf.

Boulder City Council 2003 endorsements and results. Handwritten notes by Al Bartlett, Co-Founder PLAN - Boulder County.

Another example: in 2003, due to an additional vacant seat, there were 6 open seats instead of 5, with 14 candidates for the 6 seats, a wide somewhat diverse candidate pool. The Board of PLAN Boulder, a small single digit unelected body, decides who they will endorse. In 2003, as in most years since 1975, PLAN - Boulder endorsed candidates won most or all the open seats. "It (At Large - Plurality block voting) is very disproportional and enables the strongest party with a comfortable or narrow majority to take all the seats in the constituency". The Spoiler Effect fractures the vote whenever there are more candidates on one side or the other.

Why does PLAN-Boulder County use the same methodology as white supremacists?

PLAN - Boulder County uses the same At Large - Plurality tool as white supremacists to keep New Urbanist candidates off the Boulder City Council. PLAN - Boulder knows the At Large - Plurality system is unfair. They're very smart people. They haven't stayed in power 44 years in a row by accident. They know how elections work and how to work the elections. Boulder's At Large - Plurality system has been the subject of debate in two prior elections the last few decades. Each time PLAN - Boulder has vehemently opposed election reforms to make elections more fair. PBC leaders and members, a small elite in Boulder, less than 1/3rd of 1% of Boulder's population, put their need to stay in power ahead of any need for fair elections and a real democracy. As with any powerful elite, they like controlling elections and 100% control of city council, even with a minority of votes. PLAN - Boulder is OK with sacrificing democracy and fair representation using white supremacist tactics, because they think their goal of maintaining low density suburban sprawl justifies the means.

Short History of the Boulder City Council

I use Boulder because At Large - Plurality is so morally corrupt, I'm familiar with some aspects of Boulder's history, Boulder used STV which shows it's possible, and it makes a good example. Boulder's elections are designed to discriminate against minorities within the community. That's not unique. Many of the issues encountered in Boulder are systemic across the United States.

Boulder City Council hasn't been expanded since 1917 (pop. 10K), when the size was fixed at 9 seats. The Council was elected using a rough grain Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of 3 seats elected every 2 years. At the time, Prof. Arnold Lien stated "PR is the most ideal plan of representation thus far devised". He recommended that "with all nine councilmen elected at the same time almost ideal results in representation would be secured". The move to STV in 1917 was implemented at a time of election reform. Women's Right to Vote was finally institutionalized in 1920, after 133 years of struggle.

Voters in Boulder switched from STV to At Large - Plurality in 1947 as a result of the Red Scare, post WWII McCarthyism. They voted out STV on the fear that Lefty Pinko Commies would be elected to Council. In 1947 Americans thought using a system that excludes minorities from having a seat at the table was just dandy. In 1947 At Large - Plurality was chosen to exclude diversity and minority voices. Is that our value system today?


Proportional Representation achieved through Direct Democracy

The problems with our elections, non-representative, unaccountable elected officials aren't going away, unless we make them go away. Remedies to pressing issues continue to take years and crises to be acknowledged and addressed. We can't address climate change while the oil and gas companies control nearly every level of government.

State and federal government legislative bodies in the US are too large and have too many institutionalized obstructions to implement change. Fortunately there are 22,000+ Home Rule cities and counties in the US. Home Rule cities and counties are able to change their city charter and ordinances by ballot initiative. Currently Cambridge, Massachusetts is the only city in the US that I know of that uses STV. Cambridge adopted STV in the early 20th C.

To enable reforms like Proportional Representation through Direct Democracy, we need to:

     •Implement "Home Rule" or Charter cities in every local government.  

     •Acknowledgement by elected officials and candidates that our election systems are broken and need remedies.

     •The establishment of "Good Governance Boards" in county and municipal governments.

     •Define the issues that need to be remedied.

     •Implement proven Pro Rep remedies.

Boulder, Colorado is a "Home Rule" city. There are three primary representation issues in Boulder:

1) Electoral System

2) Size and Demographic Distribution of Council

3) Council Member Compensation.

Power in Boulder has been concentrated one party rule for 44 years. Boulder has a 9 member council elected At Large - Plurality. We pay council members only $10,000/yr for a 20 -30/hr a week job. Only affluent people can afford to serve.

Why not Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Single Member Districts?

If all you want to accomplish is a solution to the Spoiler Effect, then RCV is a good solution. If all you want to accomplish is better geographic distribution, then wards are a good solution. Implementing Single Member Districts solves the geographic distribution concentration of City Council members but introduces new problems associated with one individual representing a full spectrum of views in their district. My "Size of Council" proposal below addresses the issue of geographic distribution while representing the diversity of the electorate in each district. STV solves more problems than RCV. RCV has transfers from losing candidates only, and may waste as many as 49.99% of the votes in a district. STV transfers from both winning and losing candidates with very few wasted votes. Both systems could be implemented. Why expend the effort and money implementing RCV, an inferior solution that introduces new problems?

Electoral system

The municipal district of Helsingborg, Sweden is 142,793 people, with 65 members in their Kommunfullmäktige from 8 parties. The city of Boulder, CO is 108,090 people with a 9 member council, 2 factions, 1 faction in control for 44 years in a row, using At Large - Plurality. Which system more accurately represents the electorate?

MMP, my favorite system to replace At Large - Plurality, is illegal for Colorado municipalities. Colorado preempts partisan races in muni elections.

STV has been used before in Boulder from 1917 - 1947; a 9 member STV elected council could be legally implemented and would accurately represent every 11% demographic slice of Boulder without changing the size of Council.

Size of Council

The more members there are of a legislative body, the more accurately a full spectrum of the electorate can be represented, the more power is dispersed. Most systems in the US are designed to concentrate power in very few people from one or two parties.

When I first learned about Pro Rep, I was so enamored by how Fine Grain the systems are in Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, I originally favored superimposing their systems onto ours. Boulder County with about 322K pop. has 3 County Commissioners from one party since 1994. Iceland with 350K pop. has 63 MPs from 7 parties.

Americans are not accustomed to the benefits of Fine Grain representation, like Helsingborg or Iceland's, are slow in updating election systems and adapting to growth. The conceptual jump from At Large - Plurality to STV is probably scary enough to a lot of people. It's very unlikely voters would approve a Fine Grain jump to a Helsingborg, Sweden style 65 member council, scaled to Boulder's population with a 49 seat council.

The city's 9 member council from 1917, when the population was around 10,000, needs adjustment to today's population of 108,090, growth of 11X over the past Century. An increase of council size from 9 to 21 members would be an adjustment of multiplying the current 9 member council x 2.33.  It would enable breaking a single district of 108K into (3) 36K districts of 7 members each, easier and less expensive for candidates to campaign in. The answer is to break council size out as a separate initiative question. By breaking each problem out into separate pieces, they should be easier to accomplish, also to comply with city charter requirements.

Council Member Compensation

As a separate ballot issue, voters should approve a pay increase for council. Every job including elected officials, should pay a Living Wage and be available to all social classes.

Good Governance

Government is the only industry in the United States that self-regulates. The politicians write their own rules. Every other industry has government oversight and regulation. The Cartel has written and kept in place archaic rules designed to exclude competition. This extends down to local government. Many or most office holders are more interested in one party control than democracy and fair elections.

Government needs independent oversight. Grassroots Democracy points in the direction of introducing democracy from the ground up. We can implement the concept of the local introduction of Climate Change policy to electoral change through the introduction of local Good Governance Boards. Good Governance Boards can independently measure EIU Democracy criteria at the state and local level. Write and ask your city council, county commissioners and state representatives to form a Good Governance Board in your community and state. It has been my experience they will resist oversight. Let people know the response you get on the Best Democracy FB page.

In November, 2018 the city of Boulder electorate passed an online petition gathering measure, greatly increasing the ability of citizens to initiate ballot measures. Since then, city staff has sabotaged implementation. The lead proponent of the measure, Evan Ravitz has posted the long history of obstruction here.

The Remedy

Let's return to an enhanced version of STV as Prof. Lien imagined a century ago, adding districting to guarantee geographic diversity. Every Century or so Boulder should adapt council size to its 11X growth in population. STV more accurately reflects and represents different groups of voters. 5% grain representation the same as New Zealand can be realized with a 2.33X increase from 9 to 21 seats. I've written this into a STV formula for size and districting that can be adapted for use across the United States and Canada.

The two Hybrid Proportional Representation systems below can be scaled up or down for larger or smaller populations anywhere, using the above formula.

Hybrid Proportional Representation (HPR) system for Boulder County, CO.

Hybrid Proportional Representation (HPR) system for Colorado.

Check out the discussion and news feed on Best Democracy on Facebook.

Hikers Littering King Steve's Landscape © 2014 Jesse Kumin, All Rights Reserved.

Watching the abuses of predetermined, distorted At Large - Plurality election results in the city of Boulder and Boulder County, CO the past two decades, initiated my interest in election reform. Like so many stories, it started with an unresolved zoning dispute and a complete lack of accountability from city officials and staff.

Both the city and county of Boulder are examples of thousands of corrupt election systems at all levels of government across the United States. At Large - Plurality systems are designed to deliver predetermined distorted results, concentrate power, reduce competition and voter choice, diminish and marginalize minority participation, and exclude large blocks of voters from having a seat at the table. This has been exposed in a lengthy series of court cases.

Any government and election system design can yield a largely predetermined result. Using a host of tools, government and election systems can be designed to yield one party dominant systems with concentrated power using First Past the Post in Single Member Districts like Boulder County and 82% of other Colorado counties. Or power can be dispersed in Multi Member Districts with Proportional Representation with very low thresholds for minority participation, yielding 13 parties in the Netherlands. In the US, elites have created the illusion of a democratic process while largely controlling and predetermining results. At Large - Plurality is excellent at creating this illusion of democracy while producing one party dominant governments.

Best Democracy Boulder County Presentation (5.5 MB .pdf). I will adapt this to any geography. Please contact me. - Jesse