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Editorial: Increase voter turnout on local elections

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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The contrast in excitement about the general election in November and the lack of same in the Johnson County Board of Supervisors special election on Tuesday couldn’t have been more stark.

The former had volunteers everywhere, registering eligible voters in the run-up to the election, the media gave it wall-to-wall coverage, and factually dubious advertisements for the candidates blanketed the airwaves. Iowa’s voter turnout rate was the highest it had been in 20 years, 73 percent, and Johnson County reached 67 percent.

The atmosphere surrounding the supervisors’ special election felt more like, “There’s an election today?” The voter turnout rate was an embarrassing 6.67 percent, and it was so close that a mere 192 votes decided the winner, according to election results from the Johnson County Auditor’s Office.

Granted, inclement weather and voter fatigue from the general election likely contributed to low turnout, but the Daily Iowan Editorial Board feels county voters can do better. We strongly encourage the county government and local political parties to work toward increasing voter turnout in municipal and county elections.

Although the news media incessantly shower the presidential election with attention, the national political offices don’t have significant effect on our day-to-day lives. Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said local government is responsible for setting property tax rates, paving and plowing streets, and managing police and fire departments, among several other facets of public life.

“You don’t really notice everything the big, federal government does, but you do on the local level,” he said.

Local government clearly has a significant effect on our daily lives, but as Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, the vice head of the Board of Supervisors pointed out, if people don’t care or want to vote, they’re not going to.

“It was surprising how many took this election for granted, especially among the Democratic Party,” he said. “Frankly, people were just too lazy to vote.”

Trying to increase voter turnout on a local level isn’t necessarily a lost cause, as a 2008 study published in the American Political Science Review illustrates. Researchers mailed notices to voters before an upcoming election that said who votes is public information. It included a list of neighbors, detailing who had and hadn’t voted in past elections and said it intended to update the roster in the future. Among this group, voter turnout was 8 percent higher than the group that wasn’t contacted.

Pressure to conform to a social norm (in this case, voting) created this effect, said Christopher Larimer, one of the coauthors and an associate political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He said MoveOn.org and several other political organizations successfully used this tactic in the 2012 election.

“This is one of the most cost-effective ways to do it,” he said. “If you want a cheap, effective way to do it, this is it.”

However, he said, this method sometimes breeds resentment among those who receive notices detailing their and their neighbors’ voting records. Larimer said that although more expensive and time consuming, door-to-door campaigning tends to be equally effective in raising voter turnout.

Weipert said that although Johnson County currently has no definitive initiatives to increase voter turnout, it plans to work in the future to find more accessible polling places and improve access to early voting.

Voter turnout in local elections is close to rock bottom. For a nation that prides itself on its democratic legacy, 6.67 percent voter turnout is humiliating regardless of the weather. Johnson County can and must do better in future elections.


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