Seek voter turnout, not voter burnout

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With Congress’ overwhelming passage to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act and President Bush’s likely approval, the federal government has affirmed that a democracy is only as strong as its commitment to its voting rights. Locally, the implementation of ranked-choice voting and public financing ensures that each person’s vote counts despite the influence of monied interests. In the same spirit of democracy, I have proposed a charter amendment to increase voter participation.

Currently, only five local offices are elected in non-general municipal elections: mayor, sheriff, district attorney, city attorney and city treasurer. Over the past decade, the average turnout rate for these elections, which occur in odd-numbered years, has been an abysmal 37.66 percent. For voters, the number of elections is time-consuming, burdensome and inconvenient. Voter fatigue is a reality. While voter registration has steadily increased, voter turnout has declined. What can we do about the decline in voting rates and citizen engagement with government?

My proposed charter amendment would move these five local races to even-numbered year elections to coincide with federal and statewide elections, which have far greater voter turnout rates — for the presidential election, 70.45 percent, and for gubernatorial, 61.35 percent. This is a simple schedule change with major benefits. These newly scheduled elections would coincide with other local elections. These include the Board of Supervisors, assessor-recorder, public defender, community college board and the Board of Education.

In an effort to generate a high voter turnout rate, the proposal makes voting convenient and easier. Under our current system, with 23 elections over a span of 10 years, voters are expected to turn up at the polls an average of 2.3 times per year. Voters are expected to balance their civic duty with the demands of everyday life. At some point, the time and effort one expends to read and understand the voting materials, to make decisions and to actually get to the polls to vote may outweigh one’s desire to vote. Under the proposal, there would be 20 elections every 10 years for an average of two elections per year.

The frequency of elections disenfranchises voters. Given the difference in the voter turnout rate between odd- and even-year elections, approximately 28.24 percent of occasional voters and 59.5 percent of registered voters are not showing up for municipal elections.

A democracy is only as good as the participation of its individuals and of its civil society as a whole. Greater participation at the ballot box can lead to greater participation in local government, generally. It is critical that we engage occasional voters who are civic-minded but have limited time.

My proposal saves money and increases government efficiency. The Department of Elections estimates that The City could potentially save $26.2 million over 20 years if odd-year and even-year elections were combined.

Regarding increased government efficiency, the current system requires both Department of Elections and Ethics Commission staff to administer two elections simultaneously — because elections now occur in consecutive years and the election cycles overlap. My proposal would enable this staff to complete the work related to one election cycle before having to focus on the work related to the next election cycle. Fewer individual elections will free up elections-specific obligations so that the respective departments can more effectively reduce their current backlogs in areas such as reports, audits, voter outreach, registration and education.

This simple, common sense measure allows government to work with established voting trends to encourage maximum interest and participation. Today, the Board of Supervisors will play a key role — it will decide whether to place this proposed amendment on the November 2006 ballot. Can the Board of Supervisors put aside uncertain predictions about political outcomes and let the voters themselves choose how best to exercise their right to vote?

Jake McGoldrick represents District 1 as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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