April 15, 2016

All throughout the Commonwealth, towns are holding local elections in April.  Generally speaking, turnout in these elections is dismal, which leads me to ask—is this any way to run an election?

For instance, my town, Dartmouth, held elections two weeks ago.  Just over 11% of all registered voters turned out to vote.  Right now, our police station is closed due to mold problems; our police officers are working out of temporary building structures.  The town proposed an override to renovate the existing building, but that override question failed, by 127 votes.  That margin represents just about .6% of all registered voters in the town, and in fact, the margin of defeat was smaller than the number of blank ballots on that question (277). 

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s just happening in my town, or even in this state.  A few years back, just 5 voters voted to yes on a $1 million dollar bond in an Oklahoma school board election—and that was enough votes to allow the measure to pass. 

The idea behind moving local elections to off times was to allow voters to focus on these elections.  Worried that local elections would be over-shadowed by state and national elections, the push was to hold local elections at a time when no other elections were being held, so voters would pay attention to what was going on in these races.  While this may allow for more attention to these races in major media markets, this certainly isn’t true in smaller towns, where media coverage of local elections is non-existent or difficult to come by.  And even though local elections may be covered in major cities, turnout is down in these elections across the board.  

At the same time these elections were moved to off-years, many local communities also switched to nonpartisan elections, to reduce the influence of partisan politics.  As the old saying went, there’s not a Democratic or Republican way to pave a street.  The joint effect of these two reforms on turnout is fairly large.  One study suggests that turnout is 3% higher in cities that hold partisan elections as compared to cities that hold non-partisan elections.  The effect of moving local elections to coincide with national elections is even larger: a 27% increase when they’re held at the same time as presidential elections, and a 15% increase when they coincide with Congressional elections.  The payoff associated with changing the timing of local elections is also monetary, as town officials save money by reducing the number of elections they have to run.

Of course, there are trade-offs to holding local elections at the same time as national and state elections as they will obviously overshadow what is going on at the local level.  But given research that suggests low turnout in local elections leads to less equitable representation for racial and ethnic minorities on local governing bodies and skews spending priorities, it seems that it may be high time to consider how and when local elections are conducted in the Commonwealth.

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