All-District City Council Composition

In collaboration with Councilmembers Flynn and Clark, I'm proposing Council Bill 21-0908, a charter change that would ask Denver voters on November's ballot to convert the existing at-large Council seats to two additional district Council seats.

 

Adding two additional district seats would:

  • Allow us to create city council districts with an average of 55,040 residents per district
  • Broaden & deepen representation by creating smaller communities of interest
  • Give residents a stronger voice & better access to their representatives on Council
  • Improve the power imbalance between the Executive and Legislative branches of government by reducing the power and influence of special interests in at-large elections. 

The Problem

Based on the US Census data released on August 12, 2021, Denver’s population grew by more than 115,000 residents over the past 10 years. The current average City Council district is 54,560 residents. In reality, though, over the course of a decade in population and density shifts, that number can vary widely by district. Based on 2018 data, the current largest City Council district (District 9) serves 75,463 constituents while the smallest (District 5) serves 60,532 constituents. 

 

If additional Council districts are not added during the 2022 Denver redistricting process, our existing 11 Council districts will be serving an all-time high average of 65,047 constituents per district, making it harder for constituents to access their district representative.

The Solution

We are proposing that Denver voters should decide whether they want to convert the two existing at-large Council seats to single-district seats, expanding from 11 to 13 district seats. 

This would distribute City Council resources and representation—especially direct representation for historically underrepresented groups—more equitably among Denver residents when we redraw City Council districts in the upcoming Redistricting Denver 2022 process. 

Adding two additional district seats would:

  • Allow us to create city council districts with an average of 55,040 residents per district
  • Broaden & deepen representation by creating smaller communities of interest
  • Give residents a stronger voice & better access to their representatives on Council
  • Improve the power imbalance between the Executive and Legislative branches of government by reducing the power and influence of special interests in at-large elections

Proposed Ballot Language

“Shall the Charter of the City and County of Denver be amended to convert the two at-large City Council seats to district council seats, forming a City Council composed of 13 district members?”

 

You can read the full draft bill HERE.

Next Steps

  • August 17: On the agenda for the Mayor-Council meeting
  • August 23: First reading and one-hour required public hearing
  • August 30: Second reading and final vote
  • November 2: Voters pass or reject the ballot measure

Videos

Finance and Governance Committee: Proposal Briefing, Public Comment, and Councilmember Q&A (August 10, 2021)

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the problem we're trying to solve?

Based on the US Census data released on August 12, 2021, Denver’s population grew by more than 115,000 residents over the past 10 years. The current average City Council district is 54,560 residents. In reality, though, over the course of a decade in population and density shifts, that number can vary widely by district. Based on 2018 data, the current largest City Council district (District 9) serves 75,463 constituents while the smallest (District 5) serves 60,532 constituents. 


If additional Council districts are not added during the 2022 Denver redistricting process, our existing 11 Council districts will be serving an all-time high average of 65,047 constituents per district, making it harder for constituents to access their district representative.


Adding two additional district seats would distribute City Council resources and representation—especially direct representation for historically underrepresented groups—more equitably among Denver residents when we redraw City Council districts in the upcoming Redistricting Denver 2022 process.

What is City Council voting on with this proposal?

City Council is only voting on whether to send this charter change proposal to the November 2 ballot so that Denver voters can then decide on whether they want to convert the two at-large Council seats to two district seats.

Will voters get to decide if they want this change?

Yes, this would be a change to the City and County of Denver’s charter (which is basically our Constitution, at the level of city government), so it must be approved by Denver’s voters. If 21-0908 passes its City Council vote, The People will get to pass or reject this measure on the November 2, 2021 election ballot.

Why are you asking voters to decide on this change now?

We’re facing an unusual convergence: Redistricting is the process of redrawing City Council district maps following the 2020 US Census, and it will take place next year in 2022, ahead of the next municipal election in 2023. Both current at-large members are termed out, so their seats will be open during that 2023 municipal election. These unique circumstances give us the opportunity for voters to consider whether they would like to restructure their City Council representation without disrupting the term of office for any at-large members. This convergence will not happen again until at least 2080. The convergence is not an absolute prerequisite but the convergence makes this change timely in that if passed, we will save resources and avoid unduly impacting elected members of council.

What does “single-district” mean?

“Single-district” means that City Council would be composed exclusively of geographically-bound districts instead of having some council members who represent everyone and others who represent specific geographies.

What are the benefits of single-district City Councils?

  • Localized democracy
  • Tailored & accessible representation
  • Accountability to constituents
  • Minimizing special interests
  • More effective use of limited resources

Hasn’t Denver always had at-large seats on City Council?

No. Prior to 1968, Denver’s City Council was made up of only single-member district seats. In 1968, amid the civil rights movement, just a few years after the federal passage of the Voting Rights Act, Denver added two additional district seats AND two at-large seats. 


Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most common form of representation in local offices were at-large systems. The at-large systems were pervasive across the country to ensure that the white-majority voting bloc could remain in power and dilute Black citizen’s votes to elect representatives of their choice. Many believe the 1968 introduction of Denver’s two at-large seats was a backlash to the Voting Rights Act of 1968 and was an attempt to at least preserve a structure that would always outweigh a minority representative if one should emerge. Since having at-large seats, Denver has had 15 at-large representatives -- only two who identified as racial or ethnic minorities.

Why not add two district seats to make districts smaller and keep the 2 at-large seats (for a total of 15 Councilmembers)?

If we were to move to a City Council composed of 15 members, this would further dilute resources and achieve the opposite of what we seek with this proposal, which is to maximize resources for district constituents.

If at-large seats are converted to district seats, aren’t you taking away additional representation from Denver residents?

At-large members, while representing the entire city, have a vastly different constituency than a district member, especially a member representing a less-dense population. If a single low-population neighborhood is unhappy with a decision made by the body, the district representative is much more accountable, whereas that voting bloc may not be enough to determine an at-large election. At-large members being untethered to any specific community can isolate them from the impacts of their high-level policy initiatives.

If at-large seats are converted to district seats, who will focus on citywide policies?

The goal of every councilmember should be to assess and advance policy in a way that serves the whole city. When councilmembers aim to serve their constituents there is always an inherent balance in that nothing can advance without six other votes. This process and vote count will not change with this conversion. There will still need to be 7 total votes of support to pass or reject anything on council---the city as a whole is not one member’s responsibility but instead the ultimate responsibility of balancing the needs across districts. In just the last year, several of the most consequential changes citywide have been championed by single-district members of council, including our recent successful effort to pass Right to Counsel in Evictions and the upcoming changes we introduced last year to make the Independent Monitor truly independent.

Don’t at-large seats serve as a check and balance on Denver’s “strong mayor” power structure?

In reality, due to the cost of running a city-wide race/campaign, very few grassroots candidates can successfully reach the entire city and successful at-large candidates often are supported by the same special interest entities that participate in Independent Expenditure Committees for the mayor. The at-large candidates who win are typically affirming the interests electing the mayor and thus affirm the mayor’s influence on Council and the strong-Mayor power structure. The representation that comes with single-district representatives ensures the balance you would hope for on a democratically elected body and it reduces the power and influence of special interests on the legislative branch of government.

How do other cities structure their City Council seats?

There is no single way or “best practice” across cities. Some cities have all at-large members, others have all single-district members while still others have slight hybrids. What the research does conclude is that at-large representatives do in fact decrease “descriptive representation” for minority groups and dilutes already marginalized voices.

Is this change based on research?

Yes, while a local search of campaign issues and political context in Denver after the passage of the Voting Rights Act reveals that there were racial tensions locally motivating the addition of at-large seats, broader empirical research confirms that at-large voting is a preeminent second-generation way to deny equal opportunity to minority voters and candidates. In fact, Congress has banned at-large voting for all federal elections. It’s been discarded by most states and has been a voting method subject to more litigation for it’s discriminatory impact on local elections.

Why would we want to remove two seats for voters to vote on?

In the last 2019 municipal election, undervotes for at-large members suggest 31.7% voters did not utilize their ability to vote for their at-large members. From our experience, most residents of District 9 do not reach out to their at-large members for constituent services and when they do they are often referred to call the Executive branch of government at 311 or their district representative. Having the ability to vote on someone does not necessarily guarantee their support or attention on your issues and in fact means that if there is such perceptions out there, at-large members are obliged to serve 11 times more constituents on the same size budget as single-district members who are stating that they do not have sufficient resources to serve their constituency which is in theory at least 11 times smaller than the constituency of at-large members.

In the News

Unlikely Partnership Pushing to End At-Large Denver City Council Seats, Westword, (August 11, 2021)

So what would losing at-large seats at Denver City Council mean? Depends who you ask, Denverite, (August 11, 2021)

Committee narrowly OKs first vote on measure to eliminate at-large councilmembers, The Denver Gazette, (August 10, 2021)