4 ways to boost the dismal turnout in local elections
Today, New Yorkers go to the polls to choose Mayor Michael Bloomberg's likely replacement in the city's Democratic primary election — which, thanks to New York City's overwhelmingly Democratic voter base, serves almost as a de facto general election.
It's telling that in a city with around 3 million Democrats — roughly the population of Mississippi — only 330,000 of them bothered to show up during the last election. Judging by the evidence on social media, this election isn't going much better:
— Stephen Nessen (@stephen_nessen) September 10, 2013
It's not just New York. Earlier this year in Los Angeles, only 23.3 percent of residents voted in the mayoral election, which is actually a significant increase from the 17.9 percent who voted in 2009.
Compare that to the 58.7 percent of eligible voters who walked to the polls for either President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012. For whatever reason, people care about national elections far more than they do about local elections, even though comptrollers and city councilmen make decisions that directly affect their lives.
So how can cities around the country boost participation in local elections?
Give people a stake in their local government
Presidential campaigns often feature hot-button social and national security issues that drive voters to the polls.
Local elections, on the other hand, center around the nitty-gritty details of governance, which is why they don't always inspire people to vote. Appropriating funds for parks and schools might be necessary, but it's not sexy.
That is where participatory budgeting comes in. Based on a system created in Porto Alegre, Brazil, it gives citizens control over a slice of their city's budget. Starting last year in New York City, the Participatory Budgeting Project convinced four city council districts to give their constituents power over $1 million of their budgets.
Nearly 40 percent of the people who participated in the budgeting process said they rarely voted in local elections, according to The New York Times, which could make it a valuable tool to get otherwise apathetic voters to care about what happens in municipal government.
Shame people into voting
It's amazing what a little peer pressure can do.
A Yale study found that participation in a 2006 Michigan election increased by almost 2 percent when voters simply got mail reminding them to go to the polls.
Even more effective was including their neighbors' voting records with that mail — a measure that boosted voter turnout by 8 percent. The study was repeated in local elections around the country with the same result.
Showing people whether or not their neighbors voted in the last election "might prick the civic conscience of a voter," study co-author Alan S. Gerber told Pacific Standard. "It's possible that people simply felt that they were a little more attuned to their civic duty norm of participation once they had the sense they were compiling a track record, and I think that probably had a pretty substantial effect on their incentive."
While it worked in several studies, Gerber noted, trying it on a widespread scale could create "quite a backlash."
Make polls a party
Aside from a sense of civic pride and a sticker, the rewards of voting can seem meager compared to the costs, which usually involve waiting inside a school gymnasium.
It wasn't always like this. In the 1800s, "voters at the polls talked with friends, threw down shots of free whiskey, listened to lively entertainment, and generally had a good time," according to a 2006 study titled, "Putting the Party Back into Politics."
Obviously, passing out shots of Jim Beam wouldn't fly today, but the Yale researchers found that throwing an Election Day poll party with "food, fun, and music" — all complying with state and federal voter laws, of course — increased voter turnout by 6.5 percent and cost less than direct-mail campaigns.
Bring voting into the 21st century
Young people are notoriously unreliable voters. They are also fans of something called "the internet."
Hence a push to use social media and apps to get younger voters to the polls. In Vancouver, city officials spent $10,000 on an app that would tell voters where and when to vote, who was on the ballot, and basic information about voter eligibility in the hopes of boosting turnout for a civic election.
Last year, a study published in Nature found that a special non-partisan "get out the vote" message on Facebook — consisting of photos of friends who had voted — had "measurable if limited effect on voter turnout," according to The New York Times.
Another option is online voting, something that has already been put in place in around 80 Canadian cities. In Markham, Ontario, overall turnout increased 10 percent in the four years after the city allowed its citizens to vote online.
In the United States, concerns over voter fraud, denial-of-service attacks, and intrusions by foreign hackers has stymied the development of online voting. The country could follow New Zealand's example and use a handful local elections to determine whether online voting would work on a larger scale. With such low turnout already, some cities wouldn't have much to lose.