Foss: Local elections draw few voters

Data suggests that the problem has reached crisis levels
First early elections at Clifton Park- Halfmoon Public Library in Clifton Park on Saturday, October 26, 2019.
First early elections at Clifton Park- Halfmoon Public Library in Clifton Park on Saturday, October 26, 2019.

I’ve always found election day exciting. 

For a long time, I assumed that most everyone felt this way. 

But years of looking at election results has shown me otherwise. 

In most elections, a tiny sliver of the voting-age population is responsible for determining who wields the reins of power in their communities. 

Turnout is especially low for local elections, and I doubt this one will be an exception. Most people just aren’t engaged in local politics, and the dismal number of ballots cast reflects this. 

Concern about low voter turnout is nothing new, but the data suggests that the problem has reached crisis levels. 

Fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens turn out to vote for community leaders like mayor and city councilors, according to a study from Portland State University. 

That’s not just bad — it’s abysmal. 

And it raises troubling questions about whether elections decided by such a small number of adults can really be said to reflect the will of the people. 

The city of Schenectady is a good example of what the non-profit organization the U.S. Vote Foundation described as “the dirty little secret of the U.S. democratic system” in a report on how to fix the problem of low voter turnout in local elections. 

Over the past two decades, the number of Schenectady residents participating in mayoral elections has steadily shrunk, even as the city’s population has remained fairly flat. 

Vote 2019: Your guide to Tuesday’s elections

In 1999, Mayor Gary McCarthy lost his first run for mayor to Republican Albert P. Jurczynski. 

He got over 6,000 votes — more than he received in either of his mayoral victories. In 2011, McCarthy was elected mayor with 4,792 votes; four years later, he was re-elected with 4,662 votes. Expect that number to fall a little bit more this year, as he’s unopposed for a third term. 

That 1999 election saw over 15,000 people cast ballots for mayor. Sixteen years later, just 8,565 Electric City residents voted in the mayoral election, a drop of 44 percent. 

This is especially dispiriting when you consider the impact local government has on our lives. 

The people we put into office make decisions that impact us on numerous levels. They determine how to spend our tax dollars and make critical decisions in a number of areas, such as infrastructure, parks and policing. 

“If local turnout doesn’t improve, the implications could extend much further than the ballot box,” observed a 2014 article in Governing magazine. “Low-turnout elections typically aren’t representative of the elector as a whole, dominated by whiter, more affluent and older voters. Recent research published by a UC San Diego professor found such elections contribute to poorer outcomes for minorities, including uneven prioritization of public spending.” 

The election on Tuesday isn’t the most compelling or exciting of contests, but it is important.

McCarthy might be a shoo-in for mayor, but voters have the opportunity to shape the City Council — a group in desperate need of fresh and independent voices to challenge the mayor. 

Another interesting race is for the District 1 seat on the Schenectady County Legislature, where newcomer Omar Sterling McGill is challenged the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate Margaret “Peggy” King. 

I’ve never heard an unkind word about King, and she has a lot of experience. But voters might do well to support McGill, who would bring new energy, enthusiasm and ideas to a body that could use some shaking up. 

Everywhere I go, I hear grumbling about the status quo. 

If you want to make a statement, or send a message, or make your voice heard, Tuesday is the day to do it.   

Election day turnout doesn’t have to be low. 

Let’s buck the downward trend, and head to the polls. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.      

Categories: News, Opinion

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