Minorities, especially, should cast a local ballot

There’s no doubt that a mere handful of votes can change the outcome of a city election, but there is even more at stake for Iowa’s underrepresented minority communities.

Study voter turnout for any length of time and you’ll find political scientists who argue that increased engagement doesn’t provide significantly different election outcomes. But a look at the data behind such assertions shows their correlations are linked to the outcomes of national elections.

About 62 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election. In 2010, about 41 percent voted in congressional races and, in 2012, about 58 percent participated in the presidential election. The 2014 midterm elections in Iowa garnered a high turnout of 53.3 percent, a number praised by state officials.

Yet, nationally, only about 30 percent of the electorate votes in municipal races — even fewer in school races. In some city elections in Iowa, voter participation percentages don’t reach double-digits.

In 2012, for instance, Johnson County turned out 83 percent of its electorate for the November presidential election. Four months later, only 6.67 percent of voters cast a ballot in a special race for county supervisor. The low turnout brought heavily Democratic-leaning Johnson County its first Republican supervisor since 1962, and its first Republican county official since 1988.

Granted, the weather was bad and there was no straight-ticket voting on the special elections ballot, which heavily favors Democratic candidates in Johnson County. But the situation in the “People’s Republic” clearly shows that low turnout favors representation that doesn’t reflect the electorate.

Which is exactly what University of California in San Diego professor Zoltan Hajnal found in his research of that state’s local elections. He published his findings in a book, “America’s Uneven Democracy,” contending that because turnout is so low in city elections, outcomes are also more uneven.

When political scientists look only at national elections, he said, minorities are often delegated to bit parts within the overall system. In local elections, these voters can hold much more sway.

But, even when candidates affiliated with minority groups don’t win, Hajnal’s research showed participation alone made a difference in the focus and priorities adopted by the subsequent governing bodies.

“Municipalities with higher turnout spend more on welfare and other redistributive programs favored by minorities and less on areas favored by more advantaged white interests,” he said.

“In short, limited and uneven participation has helped to restrict the number of minorities in local office, which in turn affects government spending priorities. As a result, Latinos, Asian-Americans and African Americans regularly end up on the losing side because their voices are more muted than they could be.”

Minorities need not vote as a bloc or always agree on candidates or issues. However, they must vote — participate in the process — to have a meaningful impact on local policies.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 31, 2015.