In case you had not noticed, there was an election in Clark County this month. Apparently, many people did not notice, which has renewed questions about whether municipal elections should continue to be held in odd-numbered years.
That Nov. 7 election — which primarily included races for city councils and school boards — is scheduled to be certified today. And according to the Clark County Elections Office, fewer than 27 percent of registered voters bothered to turn in ballots.
That means that a little more than one-quarter of registered voters are determining how local cities and schools will be managed. A small fraction of the populace will decide the quality of our roads and which books our children read in schools and how quickly a first responder gets to us.
And that does not account for citizens who would be eligible if they bothered to register as voters. The latest estimate is that Clark County has approximately 517,000 residents, including all ages, and fewer than 90,000 of them voted earlier this month.
Low voter turnout is not exclusive to Clark County. Participation in odd-numbered years is lower throughout the state than in even-year elections, which include congressional races and often gubernatorial and presidential elections.
It is understandable that voters would be more engaged when high-profile races are on the ballot; but it is detrimental to our democracy that municipal elections are largely ignored. An analysis from The Seattle Times finds: “Since 2014, the median voter turnout has been about 33 percentage points lower in odd years than for elections in even years.” The Times also reports that, statewide, turnout was 36 percent this month, which appears to be a record low.
Which brings up the issue of having local elections in odd years.
“Our democracy is only as strong as the amount of folks who are turning out to participate in it,” state Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, told the Times. “And I think us as the Legislature and elected officials … our job is to do the best we can to meet people where they’re at, especially folks who might be the most underrepresented, the most marginalized in our communities.”
Farivar intends to introduce legislation allowing cities to move elections to even-numbered years. A similar bill received support from a Senate committee this year but did not come to the floor for a vote. The issue warrants serious consideration from lawmakers.
Indeed, anything that bolsters voter turnout warrants serious consideration. American democracy is fragile, and it has been weakened from within in recent years. As the Declaration of Independence states, government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed”; voting is the primary method for conferring that consent.
There would be drawbacks to holding city elections in even-numbered years. One is that races for city councils and school boards are nonpartisan, allowing candidates to focus on issues rather than party doctrine. Placing those elections amid the partisan rancor that dominates even-year elections could be detrimental.
Another is that local races would receive comparatively less attention than they do now. With local news diminishing across the country — The Columbian is an increasingly rare exception — it can be difficult for voters to glean information about candidates.
Those drawbacks should be weighed against the numerous benefits of having more voters participate in the process. Local elections have a broad impact on our daily lives — whether or not we pay attention to them.