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SPOTLIGHT
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Changes could improve April turnout

Published on -4/11/2011, 6:59 AM

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Watch a basketball game, and you'll instantly be able to tell your team apart from their opponents.  The fan can tell easily who to cheer for, because teams give plenty of identification with colors, team names, and numbers on their uniforms. If every player wore the same color uniform without numbers, the game would be much harder to watch.  

In local politics, we don't let the teams identify themselves -- and maybe that's why interest is down.  

On April 5, like many Kansans, I went to the polls for my city commission and school board elections.

Well, maybe not many Kansans.  Turnout ranged from 20-plus percent in Ellis County to less than 10 percent for some Johnson County races. When the finals numbers are tallied, the state's overall turnout will likely be around Finney County's 17 percent.  

Incumbents were overwhelmingly popular, meaning little change emerged from the 2011 elections. Contrast those numbers with the 42 percent turnout last November as reported by the United States Election Project at George Mason University. Significant change was the by-product of that turnout, which is exactly what elections are supposed to provide.  

But it's hard to change when four-fifths of the voters choose to stay home.

Off-cycle elections (non-primary elections that occur in odd-numbered years) are an artifact of the Progressive Movement, an early 20th century effort to weaken what were then incredibly powerful political party organizations. Primaries, merit bureaucracy and nonpartisan local elections all are products of the Progressive Era. The problem we face today is that the reforms have largely hurt democracy rather than helped it.

When parties are too strong, as they were during the machine era that spawned the Progressive reaction, then it is best to weaken them. Now that parties are weak, those reforms continue to threaten the vital role parties play as linkage institutions. The separate time and non-partisan nature of these elections are a dual problem which needs attention.

There is no reason to hold local elections separately from the November elections in which we decide other races.  

Certainly, adding the extra races would extend the time one needed to vote, but an extra three to five races would not be much of a deterrent, and certainly not on the level of establishing a separate day to vote when less attention is paid to the races contested.  In fact, by placing the city and county races on the same ballot with higher-level races we may increase interest in all contests and reduce administration costs.  

Even more damaging than the April election date has been the non-partisan local election. Parties provide cues for information-seeking voters, as well as a group with the incentive to bring people out to the polls. As Brian Schaffner, Matthew Streb and Gerald Wright showed in a 2001 study of local and state elections, nonpartisan contests are the main source of low-turnout and low-involvement races in American politics. The authors found that incumbency takes the leading role in voters' minds when parties are not on the ballot, taking an already high incumbent return rate and pushing it closer to almost universal return to office.  Removing party from the ballot deprives voters of useful information while making their decisions.

Democracy is a wonderful thing when it is practiced with care. The Progressives believed that by putting more power in the hands of voters they would engage with politics on a deeper level and be true stewards of the government.  Instead, by undermining the strongest  tie the public has to their politics, the Progressives have encouraged us to not pay attention and stay home on election day.

The date of April elections and their nonpartisan nature have combined to do exactly the opposite of what the Progressives intended. Nobody watches basketball in August, and you don't root for teams when you can't recognize their uniforms. By electing on a different day and putting all the players in the same uniform, we've made local politics a very uninteresting game for the casual fan.

Perhaps it is time to consider consolidating elections in November, adding party labels, and getting peoples' rooting interests going again.

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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