Last week my town held a primary election to winnow a field of six candidates vying for two city council seats down to four. The final election for the two open seats will be held in November, when we will also select our next mayor.
There are some fairly significant disagreements among the candidates about how the city should be run. I may be putting too fine a point on the matter, but in general, some of the candidates seem to be more government centric and some seem less so. The former say that they are in favor of prudently planning for the city's future, while the latter say that they are all about keeping taxes and government encumbrances low.
Of the nearly 10,000 registered voters in my city, exactly 829 bothered to show up and vote. Despite the impact future city council members will have on the lives of citizens, slightly more people voted in this election than voted in last spring's student body elections at the local junior high school. The city's paltry 8.3% voting rate is actually pretty standard for municipal primary elections in our area; although, about 10 times that many voted in the November 2012 general election.
So why don't people bother to vote in municipal elections? They can't really complain about inconvenience. Early voting was offered for nine business days in advance of the formal election. Yet turnout was not any better than before the advent of early voting. I love the convenience of early voting, but I can't help but wonder whether it makes much sense to spend funds to offer this accommodation.
A personal survey of neighbors reveals that most of them felt uninformed about the election. Only two of the six candidates bothered to campaign much. Their campaign materials were so general as to leave potential voters scratching their heads as to their actual positions. What does a candidate mean when he says that his major issue is favoring more civility in city government? That people that don't agree with him should just shut up? Or that he is a pushover if anything controversial comes up? Nobody knows.
It seems paradoxical that voters in my city would turn out in droves to vote in general elections, where each vote carries very little weight, while ignoring local elections where each vote actually matters.
The outcomes of last year's presidential, congressional, and state level races would have been completely unaffected had no one in my city voted. Some of the county races might have been impacted and some legislative representative races would definitely have been impacted. But to be honest, the vast majority of those that voted can't even name the county and legislative office holders for whom they voted.
People will vote if their emotions are tied up in it. Voters in my town will come out to local elections if there is a tax or spending related issue on the ballot. They can be reliably counted on to vote against tax and/or spending increases. They vote in presidential elections because they sense that who they vote for says something about themselves.
But when it comes to voting for city council members that are likely to have a disproportionately large impact on their lives and community, people in my city are pretty much ho-hum. They've got better things to do than to learn about the candidates and take a few minutes to vote. It doesn't matter that their votes could actually change the outcome of the election.
Perhaps voting patterns are somewhat information and emotion related. The average citizen can't avoid being harangued mercilessly for months in the run-up to a presidential election. They can't avoid the information stream; although, this says nothing about the quality of that stream. After being force fed, people become emotionally engaged and vote accordingly.
As stated above, there was little information available in the city council primary race. Interested voters had to go out and gather information on their own. It didn't flow to them endlessly through every form of media and in private conversations. The low information flow resulted in few people becoming emotionally invested. So they didn't vote.
One school of thought says that the modern state of voting is absurd because there is so little connection between how you vote and how candidates actually act in office. Nor does your vote in any way provide balance against the kind of control government exercises over your life. Yet regardless of the outcome of a race you are assumed to have acquiesced to the results. If 50+% of those that bother to vote choose to increase your taxes, you are assumed to have assented. At any rate, the victors have the coercive power of government at their disposal to forcibly ensure your obedience.
Another school of thought says that the ballot box is the best way we have in a democratic republic to keep the ruling class in check. So that your vote is valuable in the aggregate even if ultimate outcomes would have been unaffected by whether you cast a ballot or not.
Yet another school says that voting is both a right and a civic duty. It is something that responsible citizens do to maintain a civil society. Political power has always been traded throughout human history and such will continue to be the case. Violence and brutality has commonly been central to these transfers. Voting is part of a system that allows for the peaceful transfer of political power, thus, helping promote stability and prosperity. This view must, of course, be tempered by the reality of despotic regimes that hold elections. Sometimes these are stable, but at what cost?
The average voter likely senses some mixture of all of these philosophies plus more. But they're not consistent. Most voters in my city certainly feel that failing to vote in a general election would represent civic irresponsibility, yet they obviously don't feel the same way about local elections.
None of my observations are going to change voting patterns. Nor am I sure that I really want these patterns to change. I don't want people to vote just to vote. Increasing the number of uninformed and unmotivated voters that cast a ballot hardly seems likely to increase or preserve liberty. Maybe it could diminish the sense of disenfranchisement that many citizens feel, but I'd like to see evidence for that.
I doubt that people are suddenly going to decide to go out and become more informed about elections and political matters than they are at present. Indeed, the increase in political information over the past several decades seems to have turned the field into a specialty niche for wonks and political animals. Many average joes and janes are more than willing to stay on the sidelines rather than feel out of their league in the pro/semi-pro fray.
The upshot is that I think it's reasonable to expect to continue to see lackluster municipal voting patterns in my town. Oh, there will probably be a hot issue that causes a spike now and again. But for the most part people will go on being uninformed non-voters.