Opinion | Democrats Against Voter Turnout

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Many Texas cities are holding local elections tomorrow. Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio will all vote for mayors, while other cities will elect school boards or city councils.

“People often pay close attention to national politics but fail to realize that local elections can have the largest impact on our lives,” Emily Farris and Hannah Vu of Texas Christian University recently wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We need well-funded school programs, stable and reliable infrastructure, affordable housing, a sense of safety and belonging, and all the things that make a strong community. Local elected officials are responsible for many of the things Fort Worth residents care about in the community that they love.”

And yet turnout in this weekend’s elections is likely to be dreadful.

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When Fort Worth last voted for a mayor, two years ago, turnout was 8 percent. The people who did vote could have fit into T.C.U.’s football stadium, with room to spare, Farris and Vu pointed out. In San Antonio, which is holding both mayoral and city-council races this year, turnout may not exceed 10 percent, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein, who’s based there, predicted in his daily political newsletter.

“It’s a disgrace — especially since we know exactly how to fix this problem,” Bernstein wrote.

The solution

How? Bernstein points to two answers, both of which are a bit counterintuitive.

First, many local elections are non-partisan, meaning that candidates aren’t listed with a party label. That should change. I know it’s fashionable to decry partisanship and pine for a political system run by common-sense leaders who transcend party labels. But it’s also a fantasy.

Put it this way: Do you have time to research every local candidate and figure out who has views closer to your own? Almost certainly not. Instead, many people give up. Confused by local elections, they sit them out.

Political parties “provide a lot of information in a very small package,” Bernstein notes. “Although that ‘R’ or ‘D’ after a candidate’s name may not tell us everything we want to know about a given contest, it’s enough for most people to make a reasonably informed decision.”

Fortunately, local political parties don’t simply adopt every position of national parties. They often have their own images, which overlap with the national party’s but remain distinct. So introducing partisanship into local elections wouldn’t simply turn mayor’s races into proxy battles between President Trump and Nancy Pelosi.

Bernstein’s second solution involves getting the Democratic Party to care more about voter turnout. Yes, Republicans are usually the ones trying to hold down turnout. Republican leaders have spread fictional stories about voter fraud to justify all kinds of measures (including some in Texas) that would make voting more difficult, as I’ve covered before. But with local elections, Democrats are the bigger problem.

One clear way to increase turnout in local elections is to hold them at the same time as other elections — say, in November 2018 rather than May 2019. Polls show that most Americans prefer consolidated elections, even though they lead to longer ballots, as the political scientist Sarah Anzia has written.

Democratic politicians have often opposed such a shift, because labor unions and other left-leaning interest groups can benefit from the low turnout in local elections. “When school boards and other municipal offices are up for election at odd times, few run-of-the-mill voters show up at the polls, but voters with a particular interest in these elections — like city workers themselves — show up in full force,” Eitan Hersh of Tufts wrote for FiveThirtyEight. “The low-turnout election allows their policy goals to dominate.”

That’s unacceptable. Encouraging voter participation matters more than any narrow policy goal. I’m glad Democrats have decided that voting rights should be one of their top issues, and they’re pushing all kinds of smart ideas, like automatic voter registration and extended voting hours. Now they should expand their campaign to local elections.

In the meantime, I’ll be hoping turnout cracks double digits in Texas this weekend.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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