Much has been written in recent weeks about the record low voter turnout (8%) in the recent city elections. Unfortunately, the trend is in keeping with the dive in voting around the nation, and in many ways it’s understandable. But before the chicken littles out there throw up their hands and hide because the sky is falling, we have to remember one thing. This is fixable – on many levels. Common Cause has been pushing for solutions to this problem-in-the-making for years, but it will take time, and a multitude of statutory changes to our democracy back to full tilt.
No one likes to talk about, it but there are deep-seated reasons that most Americans do not register, and do not vote. These go far beyond the location of the polling places or the date of the election – the “inconvenience” factor so often blamed for low voter turn out. Yes, these are important, but not as important as the feeling most people have that elections have nothing to do with their real day-to-day lives.
When voters are faced with few real choices or strong candidates, why bother? And when voters feel that their vote means little in the face of entrenched incumbents and special interest money, is it really worth the effort of finding out the date and the hours of polling places in an off season election where there were no competitive races in many parts of the city?
Albuquerque non-voters have given their answer.
This year’s city election was also the victim of bad timing. It came a little more than a month after a major scandal involving charges against the state’s chief election officer. Every time a case involving public corruption is unresolved, there’s a crisis in voter confidence. Voters lose faith in the system and begin to believe that all politicians are corrupt.
It was also an odd-year election when only even numbered city council seats were up for election. There was no mayor’s race on the ballot; no national or state contests, nothing other than a few bond issues and obscure ballot questions. The few candidates who ran, ran in largely non-competitive districts, drawn earlier by a majority of incumbents to protect partisan turf in what is supposedly a non-partisan election.
Although Albuquerque municipal races are nominally non-partisan, the district maps are drawn in a partisan fashion, by the city council itself. The process is basically the same as that used by the state legislature, which every ten years re-draws district lines to accommodate population shifts. In both bodies, the majority tries to protect its edge and incumbents try to choose favorable territory. The result is a map with few competitive districts, where the winners could be either Democrats or Republicans, even Independents. With less competition, why bother to vote? Especially if you are a Republican deep within a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican area?
For several years, Common Cause has been pushing for an independent redistricting commission, made up of citizens, not politicians to draw a map that was more squarely based on population, communities of interest, and fairness to minorities. It’s an idea that deserves a reprieve.
We are also believers in an independent State Ethics Commission that will restore citizen’s faith in their elected officials. We need a mechanism to separate the few bad apples elected to office from the vast majority of honest public servants and hold them accountable for violations of the law.
To ensure that voters have something meaningful to vote on, we agree that putting elections like those for school board, flood control district, conservancy district on the same ballot is useful. It’s also possible to eliminate odd-year city council elections altogether and have councilors run every four years at the same time as the mayor. In fact, almost anything is possible if there is a real will to increase – rather than decrease – voter participation.
Common Cause New Mexico is a non-partisan organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.