Voter turnout in Tuesday’s municipal election continues decades-long slide

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Voters cast their ballots at the vote center inside NexusPark on Election Day in Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Tuesday’s municipal election saw the third lowest voter turnout in Columbus since at least the 1940s, continuing a decades-long trend in which increasingly fewer local residents are voting for mayor and other key city offices.

Just 23% of eligible local voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, according to the Bartholomew County Clerk’s Office. That was the third lowest turnout for a municipal election in Columbus at least since Harry Truman was president according to county records and The Republic’s previous election coverage. Only the 2015 election — 16.44% turnout — and the 2007 election — 21.74% turnout — saw lower levels of participation than this year’s contest.

By comparison, 67% of registered voters in Columbus cast ballots in the 1947 municipal election, which at the time was characterized in news coverage as “light” turnout. Voter turnout in local municipal elections ranged from 60% to 67% from 1947 to 1963 but hasn’t surpassed 40% since 1995 and has only eclipsed 30% twice since 2003.

The five most recent municipal elections in Columbus, including Tuesday’s contest, have had the five lowest voter turnouts since 1947.

The low turnout this year and in recent municipal elections has raised questions about why so many Columbus residents — some 23,700 eligible voters this year — are opting against participating in elections that decide who gets to chart the path that the city they live in will take over the next four years.

Some people, including Bartholomew County Democratic Party Chair Ross Thomas, said “turnout in municipal elections is always a challenge,” but largely attributed the low turnout this year to many local residents being more focused on national politics than getting engaged with local issues.

“Turnout in a municipal election is always a challenge, which is unfortunate, because … the city council and the mayor have a lot more impact on you in a lot of cases than the state legislature or certainly Congress,” Thomas said. “…It seems like a lot of folks find themselves more focused on or thinking only about national politics if they think about politics at all.”

Bartholomew County Republican Party Vice Chair Josh Burnett said he was little surprised that Election Day turnout was not higher but added that not having a Democratic mayoral candidate at the top of the ballot may have played a role. Just 6,502 of 30,801 eligible voters cast ballots for Republican Mary Ferdon or independent Sean Burton.

At times in the past, fewer contested races has been associated with lower voter turnout.

In the 2015 municipal election, there were only two contested races on the ballot — city council district 1 and city council at-large — while the rest of the candidates ran unopposed. In the 2007 municipal election, four city council candidates ran unopposed.

But things were different in this past Tuesday’s election, as the mayoral race and every city council race were contested, including full slate of six candidates vying for three city council at-large seats.

Local election officials said they are unsure why turnout has steadily declined in recent decades but highlighted the importance of municipal elections.

“That’s why I feel like we need to try to engage people to realize, especially in a city election, how important it is to get out and vote, because our city is important, and we make sure we have leaders that are going to lead us in the right direction,” said Bartholomew County Clerk Shari Lentz.

Experts said that the local decline in voter turnout for municipal elections mirrors trends nationwide and across Indiana that have largely been driven by the nationalization of local politics and fewer people feeling connected to their neighbors and communities.

About 20% of voting-age residents in the 30 largest cities in the nation cast ballots in local elections, according to Who Votes for Mayor, a project at Portland State University that tracks and analyzes local election turnout. In several cities turnout is lower than 15%, including Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, where just 6% of eligible voters cast ballots.

And those who do vote tend to be older and more affluent than the population at large and less likely to be people of color, according to the project.

Similarly low turnout was reported in municipal elections in other areas in Indiana.

The Marion County Election Board reported that 26.3% of registered voters participated in Tuesday’s election, while nearly 24% of Allen County voters cast ballots, according to media reports.

Aaron Dusso, associate professor of political science and department chair at IUPUI, told The Republic that the rise of 24-hour television news, national talk radio and social media have led people to focus more on national issues, including some issues that mayors and city council members may not be able to significantly influence.

“We’ve seen that the dictum that all politics is local has really changed,” Dusso said. “It has flipped on its head. Almost all politics is now national. …We’ve seen this move away from the municipality and local concerns to people really focusing on these things they hear about a lot, which is what they hear about on the news channels, on talk radio.”

“In the end, people don’t see the issues that they know and care about, seeing these national issues on the board, and they don’t see that (the local election) is going to have much of an effect (on those issues), and so they ultimately stay home,” he added.

At the same time, Dusso said research has shown that people are feeling less connected to their communities than in previous decades, as people move around more often for work and civic and religious organizations see declining attendance.

Another factor includes challenges to home ownership, as homeowners tend to feel more invested in their community and are more likely to turn out to vote than renters, Dusso said.

“There are quite a few variables that all kind of connect to … that psychological connection you have to the community, and the stronger that is, the more likely you are to turn out,” Dusso said.