The time has come for the state to change its voting calendar.
Indiana needs to move its municipal elections to even-numbered years. Hoosiers should choose mayors and city council members on the same ballot that includes candidates for president, governor, Congress and the state legislative seats. Voter involvement in local races, which has reached a minuscule level, would jump significantly because state and federal elections regularly draw larger turnouts.
The last legitimate reason to keep Indiana’s municipal elections separated, on odd-numbered years — to give local issues center stage, and not allow them to be drowned out by national political trends — is sadly moot.
So few people participate that elected officials are less compelled to address those broader concerns raised on the campaign trail. Instead, the officeholders give outsized priority to satisfying special-interest groups that, to their credit, do reliably vote in numbers large enough to determine an election.
More and more average citizens skip voting in city elections. Last May, a record-low 10.8 percent of registered voters — 4,415 total — went to the polls for the Terre Haute city primary, down from 5,848 in the 2011 primary and 12,228 in the 2003 primary.
“It’s an amazing drop,” said Melissa Marschall, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston and founder of the Local Elections in America Project. Her organization is researching municipal elections nationwide and the effects of conducting them in the isolation of an odd-numbered year.
Turnout for this year’s municipal election was markedly low.
Contributing factors abound. “Maybe it’s the nastiness of partisan politics,” said Marschall, a South Bend native. Indiana’s restrictive voting rules — the antiquated 29-days-before-the-election registration deadline, the 6 p.m. poll-closing time, and the photo-ID law — inhibit big turnouts, too. A growing number of uncontested races keeps interest low, as well, but that predicament simply reflects the decrease in civic engagement also seen in the voting booths.
While all of those ills need remedies, there is a one-step way to get more people to vote for Indiana mayoral and city council races: Move the municipal elections to the same cycle as the midterm or presidential elections.
On average, such a change to same-cycle elections increases voting for local offices by 18.5 percent if it’s shifted to a presidential year (such as 2016) and 8.7 percent if it goes to a midterm year (such as 2018), according to a 2013 study by the Western Political Science Association.
“That argument will be more and more compelling,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics on the IPFW campus in Fort Wayne. Downs personally prefers the current off-year seclusion afforded local elections but understands the high cost of conducting those and the weakening public participation threaten to offset the value of that special treatment.
In 2008, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett suggested combining city elections with county, state and federal elections, and he cited the pricey cost of stand-alone municipal elections here — nearly $500,000, the mayor said then.
“It’s pretty costly to bring all that [voting] equipment out for just a few races,” Marschall said.
Indeed, besides the mayoral race between Bennett, the Republican, and Democrat challenger Mark Bird, only two other races feature candidates from the two major parties — City Council at-large and City Council District 1. In cost-per-race terms, that’s expensive, especially for a city with a lingering general-fund deficit.
Cities can’t change their local election cycles alone. “A change in state law would be required for any city to conduct its municipal election in a general election year,” stated Brad King, co-director of the Indiana Election Division. That almost happened in 2009. The Indiana Senate approved by a 32-18 vote a proposal to switch Hoosier city elections to even-numbered years, but it failed to pass the Indiana House.
The concept gained traction in 2007, when the Kernan-Shepard Commission made same-cycle elections one of its 27 recommendations for streamlining local government. That led to the Legislature’s 2009 vote, but since that fizzled the idea hasn’t come up again in the Statehouse.
Elsewhere, five states — Kentucky, Nebraska, Arkansas, Oregon and Rhode Island — conduct municipal elections on the same November date as their state and federal voting.
Ironically, Indiana enacted same-cycle elections during the Great Depression. Then-Gov. Paul McNutt, a Democrat, pushed the “skip election law” as a way to save $250,000 (worth $4.6 million today) by postponing the 1933 elections in 102 Hoosier cities until 1934. It passed despite heated opposition by Republicans, who claimed McNutt’s real motivation was to extend his party’s dominance. The Legislature repealed the law in 1941 and reverted to odd-numbered-year elections.
It’s been that way ever since.
That repetition numbs people to the possibility of changing the elections’ timing. Aaron Weinschenk — a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay political scientist who co-wrote the Western Political Science Association study on America’s mayoral elections — speaks to civic groups about such reforms and often gets surprised comments afterward.
“People will say, ‘Well, why don’t we have local elections on the same year as the others?’ It never occurred to them that they could change the election date if they wanted to,” Weinschenk said by phone last week.
Skeptics say the extra people casting votes for mayor and city council will be largely uniformed about those races, compared to those for president, governor or congressional seats. Other critics insist the local issues will get lost amid the attention paid to presidential or gubernatorial campaigns. Weinschenk says people can still cast meaningful local votes; if they like the performance of a particular party, the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian or other labels can help them choose; if they like the way things are, a voter can back incumbents, or challengers if not.
If switching city elections to the same cycle as state and federal elections gets more people to vote on local races, elected officials are more likely to consider the needs of a broader slice of the population. “The hope would be, if you get more people involved, you get more responsiveness to issues those people care about,” Weinschenk said. As it is now, heavy-voting special interests can strongly influence decisions by officeholders. “The potential for bias when there’s just a small chunk of people voting is pretty big,” he added.
The problem is, politicians elected under the current election system are the ones who would have to change it. The odds of them ever doing so in Indiana are less than even.
Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to [email protected].