When deciding the issues that most affect Plano residents’ everyday lives—from trash collection and street repair to new schools—voters arguably get the most bang for their buck in local elections.
But only a small share of Plano residents who are registered to vote will actually cast ballots in the May 4 elections, if history is any indication. And those who do vote often do not closely resemble the general voting-age population, research shows.
Voter turnout rates for municipal elections in the four major North Texas counties typically hover in the single digits. In contrast, roughly eight times as many Dallas-Fort Worth area voters turned out for last November’s midterm elections.
This can have a profound impact on the nature of representation at the ground level of local government, Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said. Low turnout also means that an organized group can have a greater influence on the direction of the city even if the numbers are small, he said.
“That’s not bad, in the sense that those groups are welcome to turn out. They generally watch [local politics] more closely than the average voter,” Jillson said. “But at the end of the day, if the issue is, ‘Is a single-digit, mid-teen [percentage] type of turnout a sufficient democratic foundation for local government,’ I think the answer is probably no.”
Plano fared better than some nearby cities with its most recent city council election. In 2017, a little more than 17 percent of voters turned out to elect the mayor and three council members. But that level of participation is not the norm. Voter turnout in three of the last five city of Plano elections was between 5 percent and 6 percent.
In a 2016 study by Portland State University, researchers found that municipal election turnout in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was lower than 15 percent. More than half of voters in local elections in 50 major U.S. cities were age 57 or older—nearly a generation older than the median age of all eligible voters.
The study also found that voter turnout tends to fluctuate from neighborhood to neighborhood, with a significant number of residents living in what the study referred to as voting deserts. Turnout in these areas was lower than half the city average.
Reasons for low turnout
There is a relatively simple way to improve voter participation in local elections: hold them at the same time as statewide and national races, Jillson said. While this approach would likely increase turnout, it would come with its own set of problems, he said.
City and school board races are often intended to be nonpartisan, Jillson said. But a large number of voters are driven by their affiliation with a major political party, he added.
“The reason that municipal elections are held off of the major election cycle … is that they want voters—even if the number of voters are small—to be focused on local issues and not be distracted by Beto or Trump,” Jillson said.
Frisco political consultant Tracy Gamble has studied local voting patterns for years.
Those who vote in city and school elections tend to show up reliably from year to year, she said. She advises candidates to appeal to those reliable voters rather than try to get new people to the polls.
That means Plano candidates this year will focus more on the roughly 27,200 voters who cast ballots in May 2017 over the more than 131,000 other registered voters who declined to show up, Gamble said.
“Few people get very involved in their local elections because they don’t have the bandwidth,” Gamble said. “They have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s happening in Congress. And they perceive—because that’s how we’re taught as students—they perceive that what’s happening in D.C. is more important than what’s happening in Austin or in their backyard.”
Runoff elections can also exaggerate the dynamics present in low turnouts, said Pat Miner, a former Plano City Council member and husband of current Council Member Angela Miner, who is not running for re-election. Even those who normally vote in municipal elections often don’t show for the runoff, which is the finale of a closely contested race.
Low turnout in the runoff election can be a depressing reality for candidates who spent a great deal of time, energy and often personal money campaigning, Miner said.
“The advantage then goes to the candidate who can get the most people to turn up,” Miner said.
Rising partisan influence
Campaign strategy in local elections is also adjusting to what political observers and participants describe as a growing influence of partisan groups.
“We’ve seen it actually happen in North Texas where a small group—maybe 100 people with barely enough reach to turn out 800 or 1,000 voters—can turn an election because historically the electorate doesn’t pay attention to local races,” Gamble said.
These groups sometimes view local office as a stepping stone to higher office, Gamble said. Serving on the city council or school board requires a fraction of the campaigning and cost of a larger-scale campaign. These positions are also viewed as a resume booster for a later run for another office.
Candidates navigate this increasingly partisan environment in different ways. Gamble, who is not working for any candidates this election cycle, advises her clients to stick with a nonpolitical message. She also tells them to appeal to voter demographics. Senior citizens, for example, are known to be active in local elections.
Other candidates, though, pursue a more openly partisan approach if they think it will help, Jillson said.
“The voters that turn out in municipal elections oftentimes will know the history of the candidates, and they know that they came out of one party or the other into this nonpartisan electoral arena,” Jillson said.
Local governments do have a say over property tax rates and other political questions, said Miner, the former Plano council member.
But to Miner, the partisan mindset that defines the statewide and national races is not as useful in a municipal setting, where officials oversee services that affect residents’ daily lives.
“People forget there’s no Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or what-have-you way of taking out the trash,” Miner said.