All politics is local. That truism (often wrongly attributed to former Rep. Tip O’Neill) has long encouraged politicians to remember the people back home because, ultimately, those people will vote based on the issues that matter to them. But politics is looking a lot less local now. Local concerns have taken a backseat to partisan politics, and local candidates are looking more and more like extensions of their national counterparts. Perhaps these changes can help explain why municipal election voter turnout is plunging across the United States. Indiana, the state with the lowest voter turnout in the country for the 2014 midterm elections, held its most recent off-year municipal elections on November 3.
In Indiana’s 2011 municipal elections, voter turnout was 15% of registered voters. That was roughly equivalent to the 2007 turnout but lower than in 2003. This year, only 20.5% of registered voters cast a ballot. Such a turnout was largely foreseeable. Indiana’s Secretary of State has been cleaning up voter rolls (in 2014, Indiana had 4.6 million registered voters, now that number is 2.7 million). This year’s municipal elections showed the effects of the clean-up: the voter turnout rate was up, despite the total number of voters voting dropping by nearly 110,000 voters compared to 2011. Indiana’s clean-up of voter rolls, while important for election administration, skews voter turnout statistics. The short-term, “increased” voter turnout, unfortunately, will allow the state to continue to avoid addressing the antidemocratic effects of off-year municipal elections.
Indiana’s municipal elections have been held on odd-numbered years since 1941. Keeping municipal elections, which were largely nonpartisan, separate from state and national elections made a lot of sense. Voters could focus on their local elections without also worrying about concurrent, higher-profile elections. This rationale, however, relied on one major assumption, that, if given the opportunity, voters would dial into local issues. But politics is no longer local. Indiana voters no longer take advantage of odd-year elections to focus and weigh in on local issues. Instead, they stay away from the “nastiness” of municipal elections that have ceased to be nonpartisan.