Few voters turn out to choose mayors

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Capital News Service

LANSING – From Holland to Traverse City, from Three Rivers to Sault Ste. Marie, from Cadillac to Ionia and from St. Ignace to East Grand Rapids, voters across Michigan will be choosing their mayors on Nov. 5.

Well, in reality only a fraction of voters will be making those decisions on Election Day. Few voters turn out for the elections that ironically have perhaps the greatest consequences to them. 

“Public decisions by mayors impact the daily lives of citizens more so than other governmental levels,” researcher Austin Aldag wrote in a new study of voter turnout. “This is due, in part, to the fact that local governments provide many key public services that citizens care deeply about,” such as roads, police and protection.

There are 100 Michigan cities holding mayoral elections this year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. And even hotly contested ones are unlikely to generate long lines at the polls, experts say.

Low turnout is the norm for mayoral elections around the country, according to the newly published study analyzing 356 elections in 35 Midwest, South and Northeast states. They include elections in 27 Michigan cities, among them Lansing, Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Flint, Ann Arbor and Dearborn.

The average voter turnout nationally? Only 19.2%. 

“Scholars of U.S. politics have repeatedly called attention to the low levels of voter participation in both federal and statewide elections, but nowhere is voter turnout lower than in mayoral elections,” writes Aldag, a doctoral student in city and regional planning at Cornell University.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is in “an era of declining political participation, polarized national political environments and declines in civil society,” he wrote.

The study, “Who votes for mayor? Evidence from midsized American cities,” identifies several major factors in the abysmal turnout rates, including the average age of voters. For example, citizens 65 or older are 15 times more likely to participate than those 34 and younger.

Participation is also higher for those with more education and higher incomes, and it’s lower among African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, the study said. Another variable could be whether mayoral contests are partisan or nonpartisan, a factor that the study did not examine.

However, the most influential factor is the timing of local elections, according to the study. Both overall turnout and minority participation are highest when a mayoral election coincides with a presidential one.

This year there is no presidential election. Nor does Michigan have races for other high-profile jobs like governor, U.S. senator or U.S. representative. Neither the state House nor the state Senate is up for grabs. And there are no statewide ballot issues that might draw more people to the polls.

While it’s difficult to change a city’s education levels, racial make-up or proportion of homeowners, “the timing of elections is a much easier institutional fix that local or state governmental officials could take the charge in solving,” the study said.

Aldag acknowledged criticisms that consolidating elections into the same cycle may make local races more partisan and make it less likely that voters will pay attention to contests at the bottom of a lengthy ballot.

“The positives outweigh the negatives,” he said in an interview.

Even so, he continued, “I’m of the mindset that they may not still vote for the local races but will at least see it. You’ve got to get them in the door.”

Whitt Kilburn, a political scientist at Grand Valley State University, said, “It’s cynical to say the status quo of low turnout is acceptable. It seems we could do a lot better than 15% — 20% turnout being a high-water mark.”

But what kind of impacts would changing election cycles have?

“How do we really predict what the effects would be, what election results may look like if turnout (for mayoral elections) mirrored turnout rates for partisan races higher up on the ballot?” said Kilburn, who studies public opinion and voting behavior.  

In Grand Rapids, which holds its mayoral election this November, conservatives who successfully pushed for term limits for mayor and city council are now asking the city to pass an ordinance shifting local elections to odd-numbered years. Their prime motivation for such a change is to reduce the cost to cities and counties of administering local elections, not boosting turnout, he said.

One thing that could boost participation in this November’s elections is a recent change in Michigan law that now allows any voter to obtain an absentee ballot on request.

Under a ballot proposal approved last year, “all eligible and registered voters” may ask for an absentee ballot without providing a reason,” according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Previously, voters needed a reason to qualify such as age, illness or travel.

Aldag said that the change may or may not have a significant impact. Easy access to absentee ballots may result in “higher levels of engagement, but if you’re looking at who actually requests them, it’s usually students living in another state or older people.”

On Nov. 5 in the Upper Peninsula, other cities with mayoral elections include Escanaba, Menominee and Iron River, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Among other West Michigan and Northern Lower Peninsula cities with mayoral elections that day are Zeeland, McBain, Grant, Fremont, Lake City, White Cloud, Ferrysburg, Manton and South Haven.

Aldag’s research appeared in the journal “Local Government Studies.”

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