On March 7, the city of St. Louis held its primary, where voters selected Democratic and Republican candidates for mayor. It was the first election in 16 years where the current mayor, Francis Slay, wasn’t running. It was also the first election since the 2016 presidential vote — when Donald Trump’s victory sparked a lot of protests, outrage and, in some cases, celebration.
For some people, the election’s outcome sparked interest in participating in the political process. St. Louis resident Erica Gaca, said the outcome of the November election motivated her to do something she’d never done before: participate in a municipal primary.
“Just seeing all the madness from the presidential election and wanting to be more in tune with what is going on in the city,” Gaca said. “I’m starting to get more practice with going out and being a good citizen and voting.”
But, as it turns out, Gaca was the exception. Despite what seemed to be an uptick in civic engagement, most people sat out the city’s primary election. Twenty-eight percent of registered voters turned out to vote — which is consistent with other local elections over the past several years.
"For whatever reason, people attach much more importance the presidential election than their local government elections. The irony is that local government are much closer to the voters and have a more direct effect on their everyday lives,” said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
A review of election board results shows that people are more likely to turn out for a presidential election. In recent years turnout has been as high as 75 percent in the St. Louis region. But for local elections, it can dip into the single digits. When people explain why they don’t vote, it’s rarely for lack of caring about local issues.
At Soulard Market on a recent Saturday, the most common reason for not voting was time. Salvatore Loforte said he meant to vote during the primary, but time got away from him. He cited his new puppy as being one reason for his distraction, but he also felt ill-informed. “I didn’t know too much about the candidates, so I wasn’t comfortable making a choice, so I thought I’d sit out,” he said.
Jen May said she regrets not having voted in the Democratic primary because she would have voted for Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who lost to Alderman Lyda Krewson. Krewson is expected to defeat her Republican opponent, Andrew Jones, in the general election race for mayor on April 4.
“Honestly, we just moved and I hadn’t updated our address,” May said. “So I didn’t get our card yet and I didn’t get the card and then all of a sudden it happened.”
May’s regret over not casting a ballot may not be misplaced. Considering how few people turn out to vote in municipal elections, any single vote actually carries more weight than when several hundred thousand people show up.
For local politicians, low voter turnout is not a bad thing. McDonald said elected officials may have a vested interested in actually keeping voter turnout low.
“They like having an electorate that they can control. So, spurring participation changes that dynamic,” McDonald said. “It forces candidates to reach out to more voters, to communicate with more of them. So one respect is that lower turnout helps elected officials get themselves re-elected again and again.”
Deandre Branch, another shopper at Soulard Market, said the reason he votes is to hold politicians’ feet to the fire.
“It’s a disgrace to yourself if you don’t keep yourself informed and knowledgeable about what’s going on in your community,” Branch said. “But you can’t really bat at the powers that be by sitting on the sideline. You have be adamant about whatever type of reform or change that you want and make sure that your voice is heard.”
Local elections don’t just decide who runs for mayor today; they determine who will be vying for senator, governor or even president. Local elections are a breeding ground for people who frequently go on to higher office, said Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, a national organization that encourages young people to get politically involved.
Even if voters don’t pay attention to the individuals running for office, the issues that show up on local ballots can end up having national resonance, DeWitt said.
“A lot of policies — like same sex marriage, minimum wage, bathroom bills, environmental policies — are made up at local level,” DeWitt said. “A lot of municipalities will pave the way for the rest of the country for legislation that then becomes more acceptable country-wide and then becomes federal legislation.”
Perhaps recognizing the long-term implications of voting can motivate participation. But it’s not enough. There are a few things that do same to make a difference. DeWitt said for young people, simple communication can go a long way.
“When candidates speak to young people on the issues that matter to them, then they listen and they respond,” DeWitt said. “So it’s a win-win situation if you can get your message across to them. And sometimes that’s not the easiest thing if there is lack of awareness of an election going on or a lack of an ability to communicate.”
The other tactic that seems to make the biggest difference, according to the University of Florida’s McDonald, is the mail-in ballot. The reason for its efficacy: it acts as a nudge.
“What may be happening is that voters are provided a ballot, it’s a reminder to them that an election is going on,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s very difficult given the erosion of local media — for people to realize that there’s an election that is taking place in their community. So that ballot is a reminder that there is something going on about government in their community.”
Missouri doesn’t have mail-in voting. Nor does it have early voting, which is another method found to improve voter participation. So lacking that, the region has to rely on people like Dominique Northington, who says she hasn’t missed a vote in years whether it’s a primary, municipal or presidential election.
“Voting is always important. You can’t give up hope, especially on a smaller scale with the city and mayoral alderman, it’s important to vote, regardless,” Northington said. “We kind of got hit hard with the presidential election. My personal preference wasn’t elected. But still it’s important to keep the faith continue on and keep voting. It would be an insult to my ancestors not to.”
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