Low Voter Turnout

It’s not a matter of importance, but interest

By Myers Reece

Voter turnout in Flathead County’s Nov. 5 municipal elections was 20 percent. That means for every five residents who were eligible to vote in Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell, four did not. And each election featured all-mail ballots, a supposedly easier method of voting than traveling to a polling place.

Pat yourself on the back if you were the one in five to take the few minutes required to fill out the ballot and stick it in the mail, but nobody should feel too good about the final numbers, even if your candidates won.

Meanwhile, on the same day, voters in Lewis and Clark County and Gallatin County decided whether to change county elections from partisan to nonpartisan. Gallatin voters shot down the proposal, ensuring candidates will still have an “R” or “D” next to their names. But Lewis and Clark voters opted to go nonpartisan.

While those elections on the surface have nothing to do with Flathead’s municipal results, they illuminate an issue that may have contributed to our local low turnout, as James Conner outlines in his blog, Flathead Memo. Conner said the 20 percent turnout is “appalling, but not surprising.”

“Nonpartisan elections are low information elections for voters who do not belong to special interest groups with a stake in the election’s outcome,” he writes, arguing that special-interest groups have disproportionate impact on nonpartisan and off-cycle elections.

“Suppressing party identification … does not eliminate partisan activity,” Conner writes. “It merely pushes it underground, depriving voters of valuable information and amplifying the name recognition advantage of incumbents.”

Conner’s post includes a video of a speech by David Parker, a well-known political scientist at Montana State University. Parker spoke out against Gallatin County’s nonpartisan ballot measure, as did the county’s Democratic party.

Parker says political scientists’ research makes clear that nonpartisan elections are “a really bad idea” and suppress voter turnout. He and other opponents say party affiliation is a value signifier, helping voters make “rational and informed choices” and increasing interest. Other available information typically says little about a candidate, leading voters to make decisions based on factors such as race, religion, prestige and familiarity, Parker argues.

But nonpartisan election advocates point to a number of factors to bolster their case, including the contentious hyper-partisan gridlock that so often grinds our federal government to an unproductive standoff. Moreover, proponents argue that nonpartisan elections promote people over politics, and say political parties may decrease cooperation and are irrelevant to local leaders’ duties.

Yet, Flathead County has political parties for its major elections. Does it make more sense to have parties for county clerk and sheriff than for city council?

Much has been written about our country’s increasing focus on national news rather than local, and research shows a decline in local election voting across the country. In addition to the partisan proposal, another oft-stated suggestion for addressing the issue is consolidating local and national elections so they appear on the same ballot, rather than alternating each year as is the norm.

I don’t know the best answer, but I do know that 20 percent is unacceptable. The truth is that city and county elections often more directly impact people’s lives than their statewide and federal counterparts. It’s not a matter of importance, but interest.