Search This Blog


Turnout requirement good to boost political interest

The Shreveport Times had some interesting thoughts on recent local elections and on SB 186 by state Sen. Nick Gautreaux. However, they require greater explication as the two are connected.

The editorialists noted the dismal turnout in last weekend’s tax elections, three percent in Caddo Parish for a trio of property tax measures to renew funding of operations of various low-visibility parish departments, and nine percent in Bossier City to renew funding of salaries for public safety employees. While lamenting this fact, they correctly noted strategies of early voting and mail voting were unlikely to significantly boost turnout (consistent with political science literature).

But they also appeared unenthusiastic about another proven solution, timing elections of these matters with others. Turnout in them goes up demonstrably, even sometimes dramatically, when there are local elective office also on the ballot, and perhaps especially so with state and federal contests. (Presently I’m doing some research for presentation and publication on this issue; I’ll get back to everybody on this in perhaps six months or so). They’re not enthusiastic about this because it “necessarily mean[s] an enlarged election bureaucracy to handle the preparation of lengthy ballots and long lines at voting precincts as voters sort through a forest of propositions and candidates.”

Likely so, but if the state were to get rid of the two dates set aside for local-only elections (this is easier and less-disruptive than is generally understood but that’s a story for another post) two salutary effects would occur if all such elections had to happen in conjunction with state and/or federal ones. First, it would be a big money-saver in the millions of dollars a year. Second, it would remove the bias that favors passage of local government-sponsored items.

The Bossier City election was a perfect example of the latter. Typically, local governments when they want a revenue-generating measure passed, particularly when it is targeted to fund public employees, will schedule such measures during the local-only dates precisely because they know these are low-stimulus elections. The thinking is that since the employees are very directly and significantly affected by the measure, they will show extremely high rates of turnout, along with their families and friends all of whom could be expected in almost every instance to vote in favor of the taxation, while only the most motivated opponents will show up because there’s nothing more “exciting” to the vast majority of the public on the ballot. Thus, the affirmative vote is structured to prevail and can be egged on further by dire predictions if the measures fail (even if, as in the case of Bossier City’s incompetent elected officials, these predictions are disingenuous and fraudulent).

Combining local with other measures encourages those otherwise uninterested in local matters, or who failed to pay attention to them, to become aware, make a decision, and act on them since they already will be at the polls for other things that first caught their eyes and the costs of additional decision-making here are very small. This would dramatically reduce the bias that favors passage.

It is for this reason that The Times’ writers are entirely wrong about SB 186. As they point out the bill, that would nullify any tax measure that wins a majority vote but fails to draw turnout of at least a third, would give nonvoters a veto and presumption of opposition if turnout is not at least a third, effectively reversing the affirmative bias presently in local elections as with this local governments would have to make a strong enough case to inspire enough turnout for the people to tax themselves. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do if the case for that taxation is genuine. As in the case of Bossier City, for example, it would have forced the city to explain why far better alternatives were left off the table, building a true consensus among a significant portion of the population instead of permitting a structure that allows a small segment disproportionate advantage.

Perhaps SB 186 could be amended to say it applies only in the standalone local elections, or the standard lowered to a quarter or fifth. Have a few of these fail because of the inability to reach a participation threshold and subsquent cuts in services as a result and you’ll get an electorate that will wake up. That’s the surest way to a citizenry better informed and to increase participation.

No comments: