Abysmal Voter Turnout and an Electoral Dinosaur: Indiana’s Meaningless Off-Year Municipal Elections

By: Jacob Kipp

All politics is local. That truism (often wrongly attributed to former Rep. Tip O’Neill) has long encouraged politicians to remember the people back home because, ultimately, those people will vote based on the issues that matter to them. But politics is looking a lot less local now. Local concerns have taken a backseat to partisan politics, and local candidates are looking more and more like extensions of their national counterparts. Perhaps these changes can help explain why municipal election voter turnout is plunging across the United States. Indiana, the state with the lowest voter turnout in the country for the 2014 midterm elections, held its most recent off-year municipal elections on November 3.

In Indiana’s 2011 municipal elections, voter turnout was 15% of registered voters. That was roughly equivalent to the 2007 turnout but lower than in 2003. This year, only 20.5% of registered voters cast a ballot. Such a turnout was largely foreseeable. Indiana’s Secretary of State has been cleaning up voter rolls (in 2014, Indiana had 4.6 million registered voters, now that number is 2.7 million).  This year’s municipal elections showed the effects of the clean-up: the voter turnout rate was up, despite the total number of voters voting dropping by nearly 110,000 voters compared to 2011. Indiana’s clean-up of voter rolls, while important for election administration, skews voter turnout statistics. The short-term, “increased” voter turnout, unfortunately, will allow the state to continue to avoid addressing the antidemocratic effects of off-year municipal elections.

Indiana’s municipal elections have been held on odd-numbered years since 1941. Keeping municipal elections, which were largely nonpartisan, separate from state and national elections made a lot of sense. Voters could focus on their local elections without also worrying about concurrent, higher-profile elections. This rationale, however, relied on one major assumption, that, if given the opportunity, voters would dial into local issues. But politics is no longer local. Indiana voters no longer take advantage of odd-year elections to focus and weigh in on local issues. Instead, they stay away from the “nastiness” of municipal elections that have ceased to be nonpartisan.

So how should Indiana handle the ever-decreasing participation in increasingly-partisan off-year municipal elections? There is a growing push, both in Indiana and nationwide, to move municipal elections to even-numbered years. A 2013 study showed that if mayoral elections were shifted to align with midterm elections, turnout for those mayoral elections would increase almost 9% (if aligned with presidential elections, turnout would increase nearly 19%). Such a shift would also represent a significant cost reduction. During the Great Depression, Indiana changed its municipal elections to even-numbered years and, adjusted for inflation, saved roughly $4.6 million.

There has been no serious effort to move municipal elections to even-numbered years since 2009. Two years earlier, then-Governor Mitch Daniels put together a commission to streamline local government. The commission developed twenty-seven ways to help accomplish that task, one of which was to move municipal elections to even-numbered years. Then, in 2009, a lone state representative proposed a bill to act on the commission’s suggestion. That bill never left committee, and no such legislation has been introduced since.

If Indiana’s original purpose behind off-year municipal elections was to encourage voter engagement and participation, then clearly that purpose is no longer being fulfilled. Turnout at this year’s municipal general elections was abysmal, and, unfortunately, this lack of participation has come to be expected. Voters have begun to fixate on national partisan politics while largely ignoring local issues, and small subsets of the population (not to mention interest groups) are dictating the outcome of important municipal elections. Moving municipal elections to even-numbered years may be one of the few ways for Indiana to salvage any remaining semblance of local democracy, especially as a state infamous for its low voter turnout.

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