Local elections count as much as presidential ones

In the historic 2008 presidential election, about 131 million people turned out to vote, an increase of 5 million from 2004. And, according to Census Bureau statistics, among them were 2 million more black voters, 2 million more Hispanics and about 600,000 more Asian voters. These statistics certainly suggested that we were witnessing a transformational shift in political behavior and entering an era of more robust civic engagement, particularly among minority voters.

But turnout statistics from recent state and local elections around the country have painted a rather bleak picture that is squarely at odds with the political energy and momentum witnessed last November.

For example, just last week, a mere 10 percent of New York City’s 3 million registered Democrats voted in the mayoral primary contest between City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and City Councilman Tony Avella of Queens – an eight point drop from turnout in the 2004 primary. While low turnout had been predicted because Thompson was highly favored, these figures are astonishingly low given that more than half of the city’s 4.6 million registered voters turned out for the 2008 presidential election.

Certainly, some of that difference can be attributed to the fact that presidential contests historically tend to draw greater turnout. But that alone can’t explain why millions chose to stay home. There were a number of significant positions on the ballot including City Council seats in the city’s 51 districts, Borough Presidents for all five boroughs, and vacancies for Public Advocate and Comptroller. And, turnout for elections of this type during the 1980s and 1990s generally ranged between 18 and 23 percent.

This pattern is certainly not one limited to New York.

Despite its central place in the historic struggle to achieve voting rights for African-Americans, Birmingham saw only 20 percent of its registered voters turn out for key city and board of education races on the ballot at the end of August. And some have attributed losses experienced by African-American mayors in Mississippi municipalities this past spring to low turnout.

Attempting to compare voter turnout rates between presidential elections and other state and federal contests could be deemed by some as trying to compare apples and oranges. History has shown that presidential and gubernatorial elections simply draw the highest levels of voter turnout.

The challenge now is figuring out how to equalize interest between federal, state and local contests. Politicians and civic leaders must devote greater energy to educating voters so that they feel as invested in the process that determines who runs their local school board or controls their city council budget as they are in the outcome of a presidential election. All of these positions are high-stakes and have a considerable influence on our communities.

Most certainly, the analysts, newspapers and other commentators who all predict low voter turnout in advance of an election are not helping any. They only contribute to the problem by prematurely suggesting that certain elections are not worthy of the public’s time and attention. To help offset the resulting discouragement, advocates and organizers need to identify strategies for seizing upon the energy and momentum that intensified around the 2008 presidential election to help communities understand and appreciate the importance of broad and even civic participation across the board.

Moreover, strong enforcement of federal laws that aim to make voter registration easier and accessible must be a central component of the solution. One example, the National Voter Registration Act (“the motor voter law”), requires states to make voter registration opportunities available at motor vehicle offices and other social service agencies. No other law has done more to help register and, as a result, increase participation among eligible voters. Efforts must be made to ensure that these agencies are compliant with the law’s requirements, even when we are in a so-called “off-election year.”

Our democracy should be one in which the honeymoon period is not experienced merely once every 4 years. Higher turnout at the local and state level can help lead to more competitive elections down the line with higher-caliber candidates on the ballot and greater accountability between elected officials and the communities they serve. In short, voters can help produce outcomes that will advance the state of our democracy but it requires robust turnout during each and every election, regardless of whether or not the presidency is up for grabs.