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As municipal elections near, experts say voter turnout is declining

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2014 General Election

A voter walks back to their car after casting his vote at the Municipal Court building in Piedmont.

Elections to determine who will lead cities, towns and school boards across Alabama are less than two months away.

Campaigning for those elections has already started in the cities and towns of Calhoun County: see as proof the signs sprouting across Oxford and Anniston. Candidates can sign up to run starting Tuesday.

Voters here will answer big questions: Oxford may see a new mayor for the first time in three decades. Anniston will get a new one, as Mayor Vaughn Stewart announced early in June he’d not seek the office again. In Jacksonville, a majority of the City Council also won’t run. Council members in the smallest cities and towns in the county will either keep their seats, or bow out to victorious challengers.

Perhaps the biggest questions, though, are: How many residents of those cities and towns will actually vote? Will those groups be representative of the municipalities as a whole? Experts say turnout for local elections is generally even lower than that for state or presidential elections.

The deadline to file paperwork to run ends 5 p.m. on July 19, five weeks before election day — Aug. 23.


Local stakes

In Oxford, Mayor Leon Smith, who has attended two City Council meetings in nearly as many years, said in September he’d run for a ninth term at Oxford’s helm.

Efforts to reach Smith about such a run since have not been successful. City finance director Alton Craft has said it may be July 19 before anyone knows the plans of the longest-serving mayor in Alabama.

Just last week, the council temporarily transferred the mayor’s authority to council President Steven Waits, saying Smith had health issues. Waits has said he’ll seek re-election to his council seat.

In Anniston, attorney Jack Draper has said he will run for the office Stewart has volunteered to leave. Current City Council members, reached by phone last week, say they all plan to seek re-election.

Three of Jacksonville’s City Council members, though, will not. First term councilman Jonathan Tompkins said by phone this week he would not run again. Neither will Truman Norred, a two-term councilman, nor will Council President and Place 2 representative Mark Jones.

Jacksonville voters also must choose whether to return three members to seats on that city’s Board of Education. Besides choosing a mayor, voters in Anniston will also decide who serves on that city’s school board. That race has already drawn two challengers: Robert Houston, a former member, and Becky Brown, a retired employee of the school system.

Voters in Hobson City, Weaver, Ohatchee and Piedmont will join the ranks of those heading to polling places on Aug. 23, where they will also make important choices about who will lead.


‘Closest to the people’

People who win local elections determine “the direction of their municipality for the next four years,” according to Ken Smith, executive director of the Alabama League of Municipalities. But that power often doesn’t translate to electoral interest.

“Municipalities are the level of government closest to the people,” Smith wrote by email.

But if trends seen in studies of municipal elections nationally hold true in Alabama, August ballot-casters may be a small slice of any Calhoun County town’s given population.

“Nationally, participation rates are pretty paltry, and have been declining,” Ryan Hankins, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, or PARCA, said recently in a phone interview.

Hankins was talking about recent municipal election turnout in some of the country’s largest cities — Los Angeles and New York, for example — where rates slouched between 20 and 25 percent.

An independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, PARCA studies topics that directly affect Alabama’s government and public policies.

Turnout rates for larger cities in other states may not match what’s seen in Alabama, Hankins said, but it seems no one knows. PARCA does not study or collect participation data from the state’s municipal elections; neither does the Secretary of State’s office. By state law, probate judges in each county must keep the records.

“The information is out there — and it’s also public record — but how accessible it is, I don’t know,” he said. “I also do not know if anyone is looking at the information.”

In 2008, 3,894 Anniston residents cast votes in an election that sent Gene Robinson to the mayor’s office. In 2012, a much more engaged electorate — 4,957 voters, or 26 percent of the city’s population over the age of 18, according to census estimates — participated. Stewart captured more than half of those votes.

Anniston’s turnout in 2012 matches what two University of Wisconsin researchers found in a 2013 paper published in Political Research Quarterly.

Thomas Holbrook and Aaron Weinschenk examined turnout in 144 mayoral elections; on average, only 25 percent of eligible voters participated — though campaign spending, incumbency and candidate competitiveness affect that average.

Such low turnout is usually not representative of cities overall, according to Fernando Guerra, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Voters in those low turnout elections are generally more affluent, older and whiter than the population as a whole, he said.

“You have a very different group of people making decisions that everyone has to live with,” Guerra said Friday in a phone interview.


Generating interest

Guerra chaired a commission in Los Angeles tasked with finding a solution to declining voter turnout in that city’s elections, after only 23 percent of the city’s voting population participated in a 2013 mayoral race.

The commission eventually made nearly 40 recommendations for improving participation. Guerra says the most important was moving city elections to coincide with larger state and federal elections, in which more voters tend to participate.

The recommendation was accepted by the Los Angeles City Council, and in March 2015, was put to a vote. The measure passed — but only 10 percent of the city’s voting population participated in the referendum.

The problem, Guerra believes, is one of information and interest. Local and state elections often involve candidates who don’t differ much from each other, hewing to the same ways of thinking about policy and social issues.

That’s just boring for voters, Guerra said.

“How can you have a political race when there’s no politics?” he asked.

Guerra says it’s up to local candidates to settle on the major issues facing a city or town, and show voters how they’d remedy those issues.

Hankins says that message might not reach many voters, though: news media outlets once devoted far more coverage to local contests than now.

“Historically, we’ve all relied on the media for information,” he said, and as time and reporters have grown scarce, the voter has had to look elsewhere for information.

Hankins believes that a closer look at municipal election turnout in the state would be beneficial. Efforts to increase that turnout, whatever the means, are needed.

“We are all better served by a more informed electorate, and a more engaged electorate,” he said. “Whatever officials or nonprofits could do that would encourage that — we’re all better off for that.”

Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.