It can be argued that municipal elections are to politics what cycling or bronc riding are to professional sports – pursuits that have passionate followers, but are nevertheless niche preoccupations.
For that reason, turnout in Tuesday’s primary is expected to be dismal. When Democrats and Republicans went to the polls in Washington County in May 2015 to choose candidates for a menu of municipal, county, school board and judicial offices, a mere 21 percent of voters turned up. While voter turnout has increased over the last few years amid the tumult and polarization of the Trump era, it’s a solid bet that when the dust settles on Wednesday, turnout will not have been much higher than it was four years ago.
Of course, Washington and Greene counties hardly stand alone in their apathy. Elections in odd-numbered years, with no federal or state offices on the ballot, are generally shunned from sea to shining sea, unless there’s some kind of juicy scandal at city hall or extraordinarily compelling issue motivating voters. Eric Garcetti became the mayor of Los Angeles in 2013 with a similar 20 percent turnout in that year’s primary and general elections, to cite one example.
Why the lack of interest?
First, we live in a mobile society where our connections to one physical community or another can be fleeting. Someone living in a subdivision who might be transferred next year to Michigan, Arizona or who knows where might not be that inclined to wade into the particulars about who is vying to be the next register of wills.
And, for the most part, county, municipal, school and judicial candidates will be dealing with the nitty-gritty of governance or law, and, let’s face it, a lot of that work is nonideological and lacking in what we might term “zazz.” We’re talking here about whether a cul-de-sac will be built, a road will be chloridized, how a budget pie will be sliced or a coach will be hired. Judicial candidates will be arraigning suspects, resolving small disputes or, perhaps, deciding child custody cases.
Thankless though much of the work is, though, it is crucial to well-being of the communities in which we live. Municipalities and school boards command budgets that number in the millions of dollars. Who is elected to oversee our tax dollars should similarly command our attention, even if it does lack the high-stakes drama of the clashes in Washington, D.C.
Is there a way to boost turnout in off-year elections? Some have suggested eyebrow-raising gimmicks like cash prizes. A better idea, though, would be moving off-year elections into even-numbered years.
The argument against that is the public and the media would pay scant attention to local contests amid the sound and fury of state and federal contests. Maybe. But at least more voters would be at the polls, and they would continue filling out their ballot beyond the marquee races. And if there’s greater turnout, the results would offer a much better reflection of the entire electorate, not just the older and better-off voters who tend to come out for every election.
Look to Portland, Ore. When it moved its local elections to even-numbered years, its turnout was 68 percent. Same in San Diego, where turnout was 69 percent.
Having local elections in odd-numbered years is, for most of us, the way things have always been done. But the way it’s always been done is clearly not working. Right now, just five states hold municipal elections in even-numbered years. Pennsylvania should become the sixth.