How Can We Turn Up Turnout?

Guest Correspondence

BY KEVIN COOPER SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUL 4, 2015

Voters in the City of Sarasota may soon be asked to consider a critical mechanism behind one of the country’s most fundamental elements: democratic elections.  On July 6, at a City Commission meeting, the agenda calls for discussion on “changing City elections to coincide with federal and state elections in even-numbered years.”  For those less familiar with the City’s process, elections are currently held during the spring in odd-numbered years.

There are a number of reasons that communities might choose to hold their elections in a pattern that differs from federal and state election cycles. In the City of Sarasota, there are many good and reasonable people with differing opinions on when elections should take place.  Regardless of the community, or the opinion, the goal should always be fundamentally rooted in maximizing voter participation.

A core concern some have with moving City elections in line with federal and state cycles is that City items would then be shuffled further down the ballot than they would otherwise appear currently. In effect, a ballot is laid out in a specific order that would triage City items below a number of other offices (e.g., President). This concern is typically referred to as ‘down ballot fall-off.’ The theory is that the longer a ballot gets, the less likely someone is to move all the way through it. Therefore, voter participation in City elections could suffer because City items would effectively get lost at the bottom of a ballot.

In the City’s 2015 runoff election, overall voter turnout was 18.7 percent.  Granted, some voters would only find charter amendments on their ballot, but participation wasn’t too far off from previous elections.  For the 2013 general and runoff elections, where two elections are sometimes needed to elect a Commissioner, voter turnout was 17.34 percent and 19.97 percent respectively. In 2011, turnout was 17.78 percent and 14.81 percent respectively. 

During the 2014 statewide general election, the City of North Port had two Commission races on the ballot. While battling for attention amidst an election for Governor, and the roughly 17 other items that appeared on the ballot ahead of them, voter participation in the North Port specific races was over 42 percent. 

During that same election, the City of Venice had one Council seat up for election. The City of Venice was likewise afflicted with the laundry list of other ballot items that appeared before it.  That contest saw a voter turnout of over 54 percent.  Interestingly, in 2011, an odd-numbered year, the last time that same seat was contested, and where it was one of only two items on the ballot, the turnout was 23.74 percent.

While local municipalities differ in many respects, particularly in the makeup of their electorate, there is no city-specific variable that could reasonably explain the drastic difference in voter participation across elections. 

During the process of discourse on the topic, the public should be aware that this ‘down ballot fall-off’ concern does not appear to be validated by any local, factual data. The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce leadership believes that, ultimately, the question of whether or not to move the City’s elections should be posed to the electorate on a ballot at referendum…. perhaps one coinciding with a federal and state election cycle during an even-numbered year.

SRQ Daily Columnist Kevin Cooper is the vice president for Public Policy and Sarasota Tomorrow Initiatives for The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

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