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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Odd-year election gives us a preview of what is working and what is not before 2024

With the odd-year elections wrapping up and a presidential election now squarely in the future, many retrospectives focus on winners and losers. A better approach seems to be looking at what is working and what is not working.

Last Tuesday’s election provided plenty of guidance. For Democrats, for Republicans, for election workers and election reform advocates and for the media covering it all.

Opinion Polling — Not Working for Anyone. On a broad level, opinion polling continues its erratic performance. It seems that for most of the past decade pollsters have spent as much time post-election rationalizing misses as they have pre-election pontificating about likely results. This year was not much different.

Days before the election, national media flooded the airwaves with dire predictions for Democrats, primarily focused on a hypothetical rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. They had Trump leading in five critical states, often outside the margin of error.

Many pundits proclaimed the sky was falling on Democrats across the country. That did not happen. To the contrary, Democrats seemed to dominate Election Night. 

For example, after losing Virginia in each of the last four presidential election cycles, Republicans finally had hope that Tuesday would prove the state was ready to swing back into their column with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (elected in 2021) leading the charge. With more than $100 million and the national polling trends at their back, they seemed poised to maintain their majority in the state House and flip the state Senate, taking control of all three branches. Instead, Democrats not only protected their Senate majority, but took control of the House of Delegates.

Similar stories were written across the country.

Abortion Rights Messaging — Working for Democrats. Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats have used it as a cudgel against Republican candidates. For their part, Republicans have been caught between a significant majority of Americans who support abortion rights and their own base advocating for evermore stringent restrictions. That leads to really uncomfortable and evasive answers like the one given by U.S. Senate candidate Peter Meijer last week.

Simply put, they cannot answer the question without dooming their electoral chances. 

While Virginia Democrats used it to their advantage on Tuesday, it was nowhere more evident than Ohio. Trump won Ohio by significant margins in both 2016 and 2020, leading many people to disavow its status as a swing state. But then abortion rights advocates put a question on the ballot that would enshrine the right to abortion access in their state constitution. And it won overwhelmingly.

The Republican Party has responded by seeking to block courts from implementing the new law by citing “foreign election interference.” Effectively, they turned from one losing issue to an even bigger loser to support it. That is a really good way to see all prior electoral gains in the state evaporate and open the door for Democrats in 2024. Not that such ridiculous positions could put Ohio in play for the presidential election, but it boosts the chances for Democrats worried about re-electing U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and protecting their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

School Board Change — Working. While school board races have become increasingly politicized in recent years, it is often difficult to put the nonpartisan races into a purely Republican-Democratic dynamic. For example, the Denver school board race attracted the most money in the state, but essentially pitted different perspectives in the Democratic Party against each other.

When the dust settled, reform-oriented candidates beat union-backed candidates and incumbents in three seats. That seems to be in clear reaction to an embattled school district that has struggled with violence, lack of transparency, grandstanding and infighting over the past few years.

In Douglas County, voters expressed their disapproval of the highly political board majority that garnered national attention and costly lawsuits for their overtly partisan approach. Three union-backed candidates swept to victory, setting the stage for a titanic battle for control in two years.

Similar union attempts came up just short in conservative bastions such as Colorado Springs and Woodland Park. Yet winning one of the Woodland Park seats (and losing two others by less than 100 votes each) while running close despite being substantially outspent in Colorado Springs should send a clear message that politics do not belong in the classroom.

That message was amplified as union-backed candidates won in most other places across the state.

Ranked Choice Voting — Working. In maybe the most interesting election in the state, Boulder ran its first-ever ranked-choice election. While early returns showed a shocking plurality for a recent former Republican, subsequent tallies demonstrated that ranked-choice voting worked as predicted. Supporters of the third-place candidate (the most progressive) overwhelmingly chose the other dyed-in-the wool Democratic candidate. More choice, without the potential for spoilers. 

Could this set the tone for more big election districts — or the state as a whole — to adopt ranked-choice in the near future? I certainly hope so.

2024? You can bet that we will see all of these put back into play over the next 12 months. With the presidential race and congressional majorities at stake, we will likely see attempts to amplify the things that are working and change those that are not. 

And in another year, we will see even more retrospectives about what results say about the future direction of politics in our state and country.

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