A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

8 November 2017 — 0854 mdt

Flathead municipal elections turnout was disgracefully low

Only one in five registered voters bothered to cast ballots in the 7 November municipal elections in the Flathead (Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell), according to the preliminary report posted online by the Flathead County Elections Department. A turnout breakdown by city and ward is not yet available (will it ever be available?).

Because registered voters is a subset of the voting eligible population, the absolute turnout was below 20 percent, perhaps as low as 15 percent.

Turnout this low is more than disgraceful. It lessens the political legitimacy of an election.

I believe two factors are primarily responsible for the low turnout:

  1. The election is isolated and held in an odd-numbered, off-cycle, year. Voters, at least in my experience, are exasperated by what they consider gratuitous elections that are timed to help special interests, and often say to hell with voting.

  2. Mayoral and city council positions are nonpartisan. That deprives voters of valuable information about the political philosophy of the candidates, making a wise choice more difficult. All too often candidates run on smiles, handshakes, and platforms made from mushy planks that look too much alike to be useful. Confronted with this happy opacity, voters are apt to throw up their hands, conclude it doesn’t matter who wins, and therefore turn on the television instead of casting a ballot.

But low turnout in municipal elections does not meet with universal disapprobation. Interest groups, such as municipal employees and their unions, with much at stake in municipal elections have higher turnout rates, and thus a disproportionate impact on the election’s outcome, than ordinary citizens. In her penetrating study of the impact of timing on elections, Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, Sarah Anzia reported:

Specifically, I have found that firefighters — an organizationally strong group with little to no direct competition — unambiguously fare better in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. The advantage that accrues to police officers in off-cycle elections is weaker, which is precisely what we should expect given that police unions are less well organized and are more likely to face political opposition than firefighter unions.

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…off-cycle election timing dramatically suppresses turnout in city elections, and that the lower turnout of off-cycle election timing creates distinct advantages for the organized groups that are best equipped to take advantage of it.

Voter lists record who voted and who didn’t. I strongly suspect that if the voter list for Kalispell for yesterday’s election was compared to a list of Kalispell’s municipal employees, one would find that a higher percentage of employees voted than did non-employees.

The Montana legislature needs to require that municipal and school elections be held during the general elections in even numbered years, and that all levy and bond issues must be placed on the general election ballot in presidential election years. That would ensure the highest possible turnout, and provide the greatest political legitimacy for the voters’ decision. Will the legislature ever have the courage and wisdom to do that? Probably not in my lifetime.

Recommended reading on turnout and timing