Small turnouts haunt local elections - East Valley Tribune: News

Small turnouts haunt local elections

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Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004 5:25 am | Updated: 5:28 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

East Valley resident Alison Hawkins skipped voting in the last municipal election, but she did cast a ballot in the last presidential race and plans to do so again in November.

"I feel like it’s more important, plus, I don’t know as much about the local candidates," the Gilbert woman said. "I actually never hear about when you’re supposed to vote locally. When it’s the president, you always know when it’s time to vote."

Hawkins is a typical voter. Turnout for local elections in the East Valley and nationwide is low compared to national elections, said Patrick Kenney, chairman of the political science department at Arizona State University.

"Voters are relatively irrational in the allocation of their time, and they perceive national elections as more important than local elections," he said.

During the last five election cycles in seven East Valley municipalities, an average of 20.5 percent of registered voters actually went to the polls. The best turnout was 43 percent in Fountain Hills in 1996; the worst was 5.8 percent in Gilbert in 1999.

In contrast, there was a 74 percent turnout among registered voters in all of Maricopa County for the presidential election in November 2000.

Greater apathy in local elections can be attributed to a variety of reasons, such as differences in media coverage, more distrust of national politics and a transient society, experts and observers said.

But not everyone is indifferent to local elections. Scottsdale resident Sandy McCarrell said she votes in all elections.

"My family always told me it was important to vote," she said. "It’s always been a part of the family tradition. You have to get out and vote and give your two cents. If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain."


National elections always have a higher voter turnout, and one reason is the difference between "high stimulus" and "low stimulus" elections, said Bruce Merrill, a professor of mass communications at ASU.

"A high stimulus election is like a presidential or statewide election," Merrill said. "What makes it more high stimulus is that it gets more media coverage. Because it gets more media coverage, more people turn out. A low stimulus election is like a school or city election. There’s very little media coverage."

Merrill also attributed low voter turnout in East Valley municipalities to the high migration rates in and out of the state.

He said people just don’t spend enough time in one place to become interested or entrenched enough to get involved in local politics.

Paradise Valley Mayor Ed Lowry said he believes the higher voter turnout in national elections also may be a matter of trust. He said most people simply trust things are on the up and up on a local level, but still have a mistrust of national leaders.

"There probably is an underlying attitude that everything will be taken care of and reasonably well (on a local level)," he said. "I think there is more faith in the strength of local government because usually people will know someone who is on the council. There are few that don’t have trust and faith in local government."

John Hall, a professor in the school of public affairs at ASU, said that to increase turnout in local elections, there either must be a huge community conflict over an issue or there has to be an attempt by city officials to communicate with people about what’s happening year round.


Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman said what people fail to realize is that their local city or town council touches them in significant ways all the time.

"Local officials decide what the roads are like they drive on, how fast the firefighters respond, what they pay for property taxes, what kind of parks there will be for their family to recreate in, and they decide whether the local businesses will have an environment that is business friendly," Berman said.

"If your garbage isn’t picked up, you’re not going to call George Bush. If the fire department doesn’t show up quickly enough, you’re not going to call George Bush. If you can’t get down your street, you’re not going to call George Bush. Your local elected leaders touch your life more than your national leaders."

Chandler resident Michael Agic, who moved to the United States in 1995 from Bosnia where there were no elections, knows that firsthand.

He said he learned the importance of local elected officials when he sought their help to keep a local retailer out of his neighborhood. If the retailer had moved in, the value of his home would have been affected, he said.

"It is very backward that people care more about national elections than local elections," he said, "because if you think about it, all of the areas in their everyday life, from recreation, education, streets, sewer, long term planning, happens locally."

Local governments across the East Valley do encourage residents to vote.

Kathy Howley, Mesa elections specialist, said the city sends a postcard to every household with a registered voter to remind them when an election is about to occur and let them know the location of their polling places. Mesa also sends out publicity pamphlets and sample ballots.

Some municipalities have made changes to reduce the time and inconvenience of voting. Most cities now allow people to go online and request an early ballot. Voters in Scottsdale can take advantage of two early voting sites, and Paradise Valley has gone to an all-mail ballot.

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