Sohn: Moving the city election would be win-win

Sohn: Moving the city election would be win-win

March 15th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- An early voter enters the Hamilton County Election Commission to vote in Chattanooga city elections. Turn out was so low, some are now questioning whether the date of the city election should be moved to coincide with presidential elections.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County election officials are right to look at moving Chattanooga's nonpartisan mayoral and City Council races to dates with larger county or presidential elections.

Such a move would, in fact, boost turnout and cost taxpayers less.

It also would be likely to favor Democrats — something no one is directly talking a lot about. Instead two conservatives on the City Council — which must approve a referendum for a city charter change to move the elections — raised questions of additional costs to candidates and possible voter confusion. Voters would have to approve a charter change.

Councilman Ken Smith fretted that such a change could be hard on incumbent council members because airtime ad rates go up in bigger election cycles. And Councilman Chip Henderson said voters might get confused picking and differentiating between Hamilton County Commission and City Council candidates.

Chattanooga's March 7 election cost the city $124,261 for the 18,968 Chattanoogans who voted (the city has 96,333 active registered voters). In the November presidential election, 145,049 ballots were cast locally. The city's April runoff in two council districts could add as much as $25,000 to the city elections price tag — for probably fewer than 5,000 votes.

Governing Magazine published research in 2014 that found voter turnout for local elections, typically held in off-cycle years, had historically lagged behind state and federal races set to take place in November, and was likely to get worse.

The University of Wisconsin researcher, Aaron Weinschenk, found low-turnout elections aren't representative of the electorate as a whole, but are dominated by whiter, more-affluent and older voters. What's more, his research showed that of all proposals to boost voter turnout, moving the election date to coincide with state or federal elections has, by far, the greatest effect. He found that shifting mayoral elections to presidential years results in an 18.5 percentage point jump in turnout, while changing to November of a midterm election yields an 8.7-point average increase.

And when the Maryland General Assembly voted to delay Baltimore's local election by one year, lining it up with the 2016 presidential election, it saved city taxpayers an estimated $3.7 million.

This seems like a no brainer for Chattanooga. It would get more of the population voting and save money.

Somebody start a petition.

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Document: 2017 city election results

The 2017 Chattanooga mayoral and City Council election results.

View Document
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