Disinterest in city elections isn't healthy, but is it permanent?

It's time to consider changing city elections to stoke voter interest

Just two more days remain in the campaign of 2013.

Members of this newspaper’s editorial board have interviewed 40 candidates for city offices in Cedar Rapids, Marion, Iowa City and Coralville over the past month. That time spent with officeholders and aspirants is, to me, the main value of having an endorsement process. Those endorsements are revealed today.

Along with all those contested city council and mayoral races, voters in the metro block, including Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Fairfax, will vote on extending a local-option sales tax for 10 more years. I’ve written three straight Sundays on that vote’s implications for Cedar Rapids, where officials want to use the tax money for streets. And it’s not the only measure on local ballots. Marion, for example, will be voting on raising its public library levy by 4 cents. Iowa City voters are again faced with the question of whether 19 and 20-year-olds should be allowed in bars.

We’ve published articles, columns and editorials. Candidates have been interviewed for videos and podcasts posted. The Gazette’s digital voter guide at is filled with much of that information.


Nowhere should the importance of city elections be more obvious than in Cedar Rapids. The 2008 flood proved that elected city leaders may be part-timers, but they wield significant authority and play a huge, full-time role in moments of crisis when decisions must be made. And in the years since the flood, those elected leaders have made an astounding number of landmark decisions likely to leave an imprint on this city for decades to come.

Bottom line, it matters who holds these offices.

And yet, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller’s rosiest turnout projection says about 27 percent of Cedar Rapids voters will cast ballots. So between seven and eight out of every 10 registered voters will skip the whole thing. Officials with plenty of power will be handed that authority by very few voters.

Pathetic, but not unusual. According to county election records, about 29 percent of Cedar Rapids voters turned out in 2005 to cast pivotal votes on changing the form of government, and 29 percent voted that fall for the first part-time mayor and council. Turnout dropped to just more than 11 percent in 2007, but rose to roughly 27 percent in 2009, when a contested mayor’s race led the ballot.

Cedar Rapids voters also aren’t unique in their disengagement. According to a study published this year in Political Research Quarterly, turnout in 340 mayoral elections in 144 large American cities has averaged just 25.8 percent since 1996.


So the numbers are disappointing. But is there anything that can be done?

If your top goal is to boost turnout, the easiest remedy is putting municipal candidates on general election ballots in even-numbered years. Iowa’s odd-numbered city elections are mandated by statute, so all it would take is some legislative editing.

The authors of the Political Research Quarterly article, Aaron Weinschenk and Thomas Holbrook, found that mayoral elections coinciding with presidential elections saw a 27-point turnout increase. Midterm elections boosted mayoral turnout 15 percent.

To put this in a local perspective, Ron Corbett was elected mayor of Iowa’s second-largest city in 2009 with 14,652 votes. In 2012, the top vote-getter in the hot Linn County Soil and Water District Commissioner race received 52,217 votes.

So what? you may say. So a bunch of people voted for an office they’ve never heard of and don’t understand.

You’re right, and that would be one of the downsides of moving city elections to a general election. More voters, but also more voters who don’t follow city issues and cast ballots blindly. Still, I think city council and mayor are many, many clicks above soil and water district commissioners on the scale of public understanding.

Could city elections get lost in all the big-ticket partisan votes? Maybe, although races for county supervisor still get a fair amount of attention amid all the higher offices. Could partisan politics bleed into non-partisan city campaigns? Sure, but we’d be naive to believe that partisan politics doesn’t already play some role in city races.


Money also matters. Campaign bucks get a bad rap, but candidate spending does generate voter interest, to a point. Researchers found a sharp turnout increase between contests where candidates spent very little and elections where candidates spent $10 per vote. Above that spending threshold, however, turnout gains were very small.

Locally, exhibit A would be the March gambling referendum. Yes and no camps combined to spend $3.4 million on rival efforts. The resulting vote drew 40 percent turnout countywide. On Tuesday, we’ll see how much all the money and attention paid to Coralville’s mayor and council races will boost turnout.

We could also try some good old-fashioned peer pressure. It has potential, according to a 2008 study by two Yale researchers and the University of Northern Iowa’s Chris Larimer.

In that study, households in Michigan were sent mailings ahead of an August 2006 primary election urging them to do their civic duty and vote. But one group received mailings not only urging them to vote but also detailing their voting history and that of their neighbors. They also were told that an updated mailing would be sent out after the election.

Turnout among the group of voters subjected to that “maximal social pressure” was a “remarkable” 8.1 percent higher than the control group. A little creepy, perhaps, but apparently effective.

There are lots of other options. Election Day could become Election Week. Or mail-in ballots could be sent to every registered voter. I suppose you could fine folks who don’t vote, or, conversely, reward those who do. Maybe a free night in the Double Tree.

Maybe you have better ideas. Regardless, I think it’s about time we stop simply settling for permanent disinterest.

During this campaign, I’ve heard from a lot of folks and some candidates who think local leaders listen to certain powerful interests more than they listen to average taxpayers. Maybe you believe that, and maybe you don’t, but the fact is miniature voter turnout is not much of a counterbalance to those large interests and their clout.

Voting gives citizens a stake in decisions that get made. That doesn’t guarantee good ones. But so many bad decisions are made by leaders who think nobody’s paying attention or cares much that I think it’s worth a shot.

Candidates and voters say our elected leaders don’t communicate well and aren’t responsive. That’s fair criticism, but it’s much tougher to demand that officials listen to citizens when so few voters hear the call to vote.


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