When deciding the issues that most affect Lewisville, Flower Mound and Highland Village 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 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 will not closely resemble the general voting-age population, research shows.
Voter turnout rates for municipal elections in Denton County typically hover in the single digits. In contrast, roughly nine times as many voters there turned out for last November’s midterm elections.
Highland Village’s voter turnout in the last five local elections has ranged between 8.75 percent and 9.63 percent. Lewisville rarely has more than 5 percent of registered voters turn out in local elections. In Lewisville’s May 2016 election, only 2.07 percent, or 1,011 voters, cast ballots.
Flower Mound fared slightly better with two out of the last five local elections attracting more than 10 percent of registered voters. In 2017 the town had about 13 percent voter turnout. A little more than 10 percent voted in the May 2018 election, which yielded a new mayor.
This low turnout can have a profound impact on the nature of representation at the ground level of local government, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. Low turnout also means that an organized group can have a greater influence on the direction of their city or school district even if their 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.
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, according to the study.
Vernell Gregg, a Flower Mound resident and former Lewisville ISD trustee, said she is a part of that older generation who regularly votes.
“A lot of African-Americans were denied the right to vote, and our ancestors fought so long and hard in order to get the right to vote that I just always said there is not a single election that I will not vote in,” she said.
She added, “If we don’t take our voting seriously, then we can’t sit back and complain. If I am out there exercising my right and staying involved, then at least I have a voice.”
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 voting deserts 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, experts suggest. While this approach would almost certainly increase turnout, it would come with its own set of problems, Jillson said.
City and school board races are often intended to be nonpartisan. But a large number of voters are driven by their affiliation with a major political party, Jillson said.
“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 voters rather than try to get new people to the polls.
“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 [Washington] D.C. is more important than what’s happening in Austin or in their backyard.”
In February, a lawsuit was filed against Lewisville ISD that claimed its at-large system for electing school board trustees violated the Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit is pushing for the district to move to single-member districts in hopes of increasing voter turnout.
Gregg said she does not think changing the district’s voting system will boost turnout.
“Looking at the turnout traditionally throughout the years at local elections, [residents]simply do not turn out, whether it’s school board or a mayor’s election,” she said. “I think the way you change that is to get young people more involved and get them to understand the importance of voting locally.”
Campaign strategy in local elections is also adjusting to what political observers and participants describe as a growing influence of partisan groups.
Gamble advises her clients to stick with a nonpolitical message. She also tells them to appeal to certain voter demographics such as senior citizens.
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.