Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Editorial: Local Voter Turnout Is Far Too Low

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Editorial: Local Voter Turnout Is Far Too Low

Article excerpt

According to the Shawnee County Election Office, more than 77,000 ballots were cast countywide last November. This means voter turnout exceeded 70 percent -- a substantial improvement over the national rate of 58 percent. However, the news isn't all good when it comes to democratic participation in our community. While national elections -- particularly when presidential candidates are on the ballot -- always attract more interest than elections at the local level, the disparity between the two can be striking. And Topeka is no exception.

For example, in our last two mayoral elections (held in 2009 and 2013), the turnout was depressingly low: 23.5 percent and 14.1 percent, respectively. And these proportions collapse even lower for the primaries: 13.08 percent and 4.4 percent. In 2013, there were more than 75,000 registered voters in Topeka, but only 3,352 of them decided it would be worth their time to participate in the mayoral primary. This made the election far less representative of the community's interests.

A lack of local voter turnout isn't a problem confined to Topeka -- it's a problem across the U.S., and it has been getting worse in recent years.

According to a recent study conducted by Portland State University, "Turnout in 10 of America's 30 largest cities was less than 15 percent" in recent local elections. Moreover, researchers found that a disproportionate number of older and more affluent citizens had participated: "City residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than younger residents between the ages of 18 and 34." These residents often live in wealthier neighborhoods that have much higher rates of voter turnout, which often leads to racial discrepancies as well. The study examined 23 million voting records in 50 cities, and the median voting age was 57.

The researchers explain why it's unhealthy for elections to be so heavily tilted: "When too few people elect local leaders, a small fraction of residents can have outsize influence in decisions about critical issues like schools, parks, housing, libraries, police and transportation. …

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