Mark Bennett: What if 2020 elections included Hoosier cities' races?

Alan Morrison

City elections mean more when more people vote. Elected officials pay more attention to a wider variety of residents as turnouts increase.

And one sure way to boost voting for city offices is to shift those off-year elections to even-numbered years, right alongside candidates for state and federal offices. If Indiana had such a system, Hoosiers would be deciding the race for mayor and city council this coming fall, as well as for president, Congress, governor and state legislature.

More people traditionally vote in presidential or even midterm elections than municipal elections, which are conducted in odd-numbered years in Indiana. Statewide, 23% of registered Hoosiers voted in their local city elections last November. By contrast, 51% voted in the 2018 midterm election and 58% in the 2016 presidential election. Three Indiana counties had city election turnouts below 10%.

With turnouts so low, the positives for isolating city elections on off-years dwindle in relevance. Giving races for mayor and city council center stage, alone, does let voters focus on local issues. Yet, with so few participating, the weight of special-interest groups who do vote in significant numbers — to their credit — overwhelms the other sectors of the population.

It also would be more cost-effective for cities to shift their local elections to the same cycle as state and federal voting.

A bill authored by state Rep. Alan Morrison, a Republican from Brazil, would allow Indiana's smallest towns and cities to adopt ordinances, moving local elections to even-numbered years. It focuses on cities and towns with fewer than 3,500 residents. The Indiana House passed his proposal 93-5 last week, sending it onto the Indiana Senate for its consideration.

Morrison would like to expand the bill to include second-class cities (with populations of 35,000 to 499,999) and third-class cities (35,000 or smaller). Six years ago, Morrison tried to give all Indiana cities (aside from Indianapolis, the state's only first-class city) the option of adopting even-numbered-year municipal elections. "I couldn't get a hearing on it," Morrison said Friday.

Prior to introducing his current small-town bill, Morrison pursued a bill to let third-class cities and smaller coincide their elections with state and federal. "There was bipartisan pushback on that," he said. So, he opted for the small-town bill.

A town such as Covington, which is in Morrison's District 42, would be affected. If the bill passes and leads to cost savings and higher turnouts in the smallest towns, it could nudge legislators to expand the law to larger cities.

"Hopefully, this will [then] send the message that it does increase turnout and saves money," Morrison said.

His bill has bipartisan support, too. House colleague Tonya Pfaff, a Democrat representing Terre Haute, serves as a co-author. She also brought up the idea of expanding it to let larger cities shift their elections, "but they told me, not yet," she said by email Friday.

As for the chances of that happening in the future, Pfaff said it "depends on the mood [of legislators]. I would hope this would be an option."

They're not the first to suggest such a change.

In 2007, Indiana's Kernan-Shepard Commission made same-cycle elections one of its 27 recommendations to make government more efficient. A year later, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said he favored the idea, citing the nearly $500,000 pricetag of conducting a city election in an off-year. And during the Great Depression, the Indiana General Assembly approved Gov. Paul McNutt's plan to give cities same-cycle elections to save money. Lawmakers repealed that 1933 law eight years later.

Nothing has changed since then.

City elections coinciding with others would undoubtedly involve more voters. Same-cycle elections increase voting for local offices by an average of 18.5% for those during presidential years (such as 2020) and 8.7% for a midterm year (such as 2018), according to a 2013 study by the Western Political Science Association.

Using those figures, the Terre Haute city election that drew 24,100 voters last fall would instead draw 37,086 if conducted in November 2020. Imagine the difference that would've made if the 2015 mayoral election, which drew an all-time low of 8,255 voters, happened in 2016 instead.

Low turnouts anywhere can change the emphasis elected officials take once in office, said Aaron Weinschenk, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and co-author of the 2013 study by the Western Political Science Association.

"In some cities, turnout is at or below 10%. With a number that low ... it's very likely that those who turn out will have different attributes and preferences than the population at large, [such as being] more educated, wealthy, older, etcetera," Weinschenk said by email last week. "Thus, low rates of citizen engagement can lead to biases in representation and policymaking."

Weinschenk also disputes claims that lumping local elections in with state and federal results in additional votes cast by residents less knowledgeable about local issues. "Voters can actually make pretty good decisions with small amounts of information," he said. "For example, they can use things like partisanship or incumbency status to assess whether a candidate is likely to align with their preferences."

Cost savings also are possible with same-cycle elections, said Melissa Marschall, an associate professor of political science at Rice University. She co-authored the 2017 report "Who Runs for Mayor in America?" for the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (or LEAP). And, contrary to the perception that voters would pay less attention to local races if placed on the same ballot as state and federal offices, Marschall said voters actually focus more on politics all-around in a general election year.

"A strong argument for on-cycle [elections] is having the voters know, 'OK, we're voting now,'" Marschall said Thursday.

Indiana election turnouts ranked second-to-lowest among nine states studied by LEAP.

The Legislature can take a small step toward improving civic engagement by enacting Morrison's bill, studying its impact on small towns and then moving to expand the idea to larger Hoosier cities. It makes sense.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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