The disappointing voter participation for this year’s city election likely has no single cause, and identifying ways to improve upon the dismal 26 percent turnout won’t be simple.
As Benjamin Lanka’s Sunday story explained, the best turnout any precinct with 100 or more registered voters could muster was fewer than half. No single City Council district recorded even a one-third turnout, and for much of the city, turnout was less than 20 percent.
Granted, participation is generally lower for off-year elections. More voters tend to go to the polls when electing a president and governor, as Hoosiers will do next year. But the low voter turnout here was a disappointment – especially considering the fact that each voter has more influence in electing a City Council member than the president, and those city officials can have more day-to-day responsibilities that affect voters’ lives.
Perhaps the intense negative campaign, with the two major-party mayoral camps highly critical of the other, drove some voters away. But such sharp criticism also tends to draw some voters into a race they may have otherwise ignored.
And purposely not voting can be a political statement – against the tone of the campaign or perhaps reflecting a voter’s dislike for all of the candidates. The main theme in this year’s campaign was city finances, a subject many prospective voters may have found too complex, especially given there has been no corruption or outright misspending. And it is likely that some would-be voters are either happy with the way things are or doubtful that new officeholders would affect much change.
Indeed, some voters may well have given up on politics, convinced that all candidates are the same. Or it could be that some otherwise civic-minded residents are just burnt out on politics. Consider that during the height of the mayoral campaign, developments in the 2012 campaigns for president, governor and senator received much attention.
Making voting easier – with vote centers, longer hours or satellite early voting places – might help, though some political experts such as Andy Downs point out that those efforts may simply make it easier for people who have already decided to vote.
Education is certainly a factor, and it was no surprise that voter turnout tended to be higher in precincts with higher incomes and education levels.
While it would be great to identify some concrete methods to improve participation, the bottom line is that more people will vote when they have better reasons. That will probably take some combination of a dynamic candidate or candidates and a hot-button issue that captures voter attention.
But in a year when thousands of protesters in several Arab nations took to the streets to dump rulers and seek democracy, it’s a sad commentary that many local politicians and government observers would be pleased to double participation – to just 50 percent.