After the incredibly intense and nasty presidential campaign, we’re probably all ready for no-drama elections for a while.
But a new study says that too many local races are real snoozers, with low voter turnout and interest.
Of recent mayoral elections in America’s 30 biggest cities, half drew less than 20 percent of registered voters, according to the researchers at Portland State University.
More troubling still, the voters who do show up at the polls tend to be much older and richer than residents in general. The average age of voters in these municipal races was 57; those 65 and older were 15 times more likely to vote than those 34 and younger, according to the study.
Not exactly fully representative democracy.
Sacramento, outside the 30 most populous cities, wasn’t part of the study. If it had been, the 50 percent turnout in the mayor’s race in June – when Darrell Steinberg defeated Angelique Ashby – would have ranked second best, behind only Portland.
Kevin Johnson’s easy re-election in 2012 still brought out 34 percent of registered voters, which would rank fourth in the study. And the hotly contested race between Johnson and Mayor Heather Fargo in 2008 recorded 74 percent turnout, which would rank first.
Voter turnout is only one measure of civic engagement. Still, Sacramento can brag a little.
But not too much, since Sacramento used to have lightly contested local races as well. As recently as 2008, all four City Council incumbents ran unopposed. That all changed in 2010, when 16 candidates ran and two council members were defeated for re-election – the first time that had happened in nearly two decades.
Another new study, however, suggests that Sacramento shares a similar problem of more affluent neighborhoods having higher voter participation than struggling ones.
Mindy Romero, who runs the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, found that 63 percent of voters in Land Park and 59 percent of voters in the Pocket cast ballots in 2014. But in lower-income Meadowview, voter turnout was 32.5 percent.
While local races generally draw far fewer ads and get far less coverage than the presidential race and some state ballot measures, decisions made by local elected officials can have a more direct impact. In Sacramento, for instance, the mayor and City Council decided during the budget crunch which services to cut and how many employees to lay off. They approved a $255 million city subsidy – which many residents wanted to vote on – for the new Golden 1 Center.
And voters often get a direct say on their own pocketbooks. In 2012, Sacramento voters approved Measure U, the half-cent sales tax to restore basic services. On Tuesday, voters countywide weighed Measure B, a half-cent sales tax for transportation and transit. As of Friday, it was just short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, but there are thousands of ballots left to be counted.
People love to complain about taxes and City Hall. But if you don’t vote, your argument is a lot weaker.
By the numbers
Voter turnout in recent mayoral elections in selected cities:
- Portland, 59.4%
- Sacramento, 49.8%
- Seattle, 44.5%
- San Diego, 32.1%
- San Francisco, 32.1%
- San Jose, 30.7%
- Washington, D.C., 19.7%
- Los Angeles, 18.6%
- Houston, 18.2%
- Phoenix, 15.4%
- New York City, 13.8%
- Las Vegas, 9.4%
- Dallas, 6.1%
Sources: Portland State University, Sacramento County registrar of voters