Staff Columnist

Is low turnout in local elections cause for alarm?

In a special election with few policy disagreements, just 9 percent turned out this week in Iowa City

John Hudson of Iowa City votes at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in Iowa City on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
John Hudson of Iowa City votes at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in Iowa City on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa City elected a new City Council member this week in underwhelming fashion.

In a community that prides itself on civic engagement, some were distraught to see the dismal turnout numbers from Tuesday’s special city election. At just 9 percent, it was among the lowest turnout figures on record.

Participation was especially poor in neighborhoods occupied by young people. In my own precinct — Iowa City 20, on the north and east edges of downtown — just 2 percent of active voters showed up to cast ballots. Some other student-heavy precincts had even lower turnout percentages. Iowa City 5, largely situated on the University of Iowa campus, saw just 23 voters, for a turnout rate less than 1 percent.

My hometown’s small but mighty pundit class has put forth several theories to explain the apparent lack of interest. Election fatigue tops the list. With a regularly scheduled primary in June, a special city primary in September and the regularly scheduled general election coming up in November, candidates faced a tough challenge in competing for voters’ attention.

Campaign finance reports show the candidates focused their resources on signs and mailings, with no sign of broadcast advertising or robocalls, which may have reached wider audiences.

In the end, Bruce Teague won with 2,277 votes, besting Ann Freerks’ 1,896 votes by about 9 percent. Curiously, 17 people went through the trouble of casting write-in votes in the single race on the ballot. That’s what I call voter engagement. I assume they, like me, are only in it for the “I voted today” sticker.

Fretting about low turnout, sometimes even shaming those who don’t partake, is a treasured pastime among the nation’s most politically engaged citizens. But maybe low turnout is not the worst thing to happen to a representative government.

In my analysis, there were few major differences between Teague and Freerks on the city’s policy priorities. Even people who are highly engaged in city politics may have sat out this election, figuring either candidate would be a fine representative on the council.

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There were some more significant contrasts in the candidates’ personal and political backgrounds. Teague has extensive experience as a small-business owner, for example, while Freerks spent many years on the city’s prominent Planning and Zoning Commission.

Still, almost none of the endorsements I saw in newspapers or on social media included a negative word about the opposing candidate. Instead, I saw many people saying they would be pleased no matter who won. In a political climate where voters are increasingly motivated by what they’re against, rather than what they’re for, this race had no boogeyman to drive up turnout numbers.

And since city elections are nonpartisan, all voters could participate in the primary. It stands to reason that such a system would advance very similar candidates, rather than the starkly opposed candidates we sometimes get from partisan primaries.

Turnout numbers are conversation fodder for political junkies. But are they a sign of a republic’s health? Not so much.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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