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May 6, 2021

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Turnout vs. burnout: What would it take to get more people to the polls for local elections?

Municipal election

Torey Van Oot / Las Vegas Sun

A row of voting machines sits idle Tuesday at the Neighborhood Recreation Center polling site in North Las Vegas. Turnout for the municipal election was expected to hover around 13 percent, election officials said.

Voter turnout for municipal elections: 2013

• Total: 11.38%

• Las Vegas: 10.05%

• Henderson: 12.35%

• North Las Vegas: 10.44%

• Mesquite: 30.53%

Voter turnout for municipal elections: 2015

• Total: 13.75%

• Las Vegas: 15.67%

• Henderson: 11.81%

• North Las Vegas: 9.38%

April 4 is primary election day for Southern Nevada’s major municipalities, but for most residents, it will probably feel like just another Tuesday.

Political engagement through protests and social media conversations about national topics may be up following the election of President Donald Trump, but don’t expect interest to trickle down to the local level.

Voter turnout in municipal primaries is always low. Only 15.7 percent of registered voters took to the polls during Las Vegas’ most recent primary in 2015, and that ballot included a high-profile mayoral race between incumbent Carolyn Goodman and Councilman Stavros Anthony.

Meanwhile, Henderson and North Las Vegas, whose ballots included only city council races, saw voter turnout rates of 11.8 and 9.3 percent, respectively. That led to a countywide average of 13.7 percent.

Record turnout and heavy engagement during the 2008 general election that put President Barack Obama in office didn’t lead to increased interest in local primaries the following year. The 2009 municipal primary saw an overall voter turnout of only 10.4 percent.

Nothing suggests a major turnaround this year, despite the current voracity of national politics.

Anecdotally, some political organizers say they are seeing success engaging voters about the importance of municipal elections.

“What we’re seeing is people beginning to understand that there’s a direct correlation between local elections and how they’re impacting us on a larger level,” says Alicia Contreras of Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization. “They are very receptive. First, they’re shocked that an election is happening. Then, they’re willing to talk about issues.”

Of course, that pitch for engagement requires a promise to a potential voter that his or her one ballot counts. Mi Familia Vota has been focusing on Ward 3 in North Las Vegas, where incumbent Anita Wood is being challenged by former Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, youth pastor Endor Austin III and retired police Lt. Wilson “Will” Crespo.

Contreras says voter burnout hasn’t been an issue the way it was during the presidential campaign season.

“Then, people were getting bombarded,” she says. “You’d get, ‘Stop calling me. Take me off this list.’ That’s not that we’ve encountered this time around.”

Apathy is likely the bigger issue. Often, people aren’t sure what ward or district they live in, or who their councilperson is. And because party affiliations aren’t listed on municipal election ballots, voting along party lines requires research.

Contreras says much of what they do is voter education, which has to come before people can engage in the system.

It likely doesn’t help that many residents don’t understand the difference between living in Las Vegas vs. unincorporated Clark County, where the mailing address would still read “Las Vegas.”

So what would help?

In 2011, new statewide legislation gave municipalities the option to switch their elections on odd-numbered years to align with county, state and national elections on even-numbered years.

Up north, Reno, Sparks, Elko, Carlin and Wells made the switch. Clark County recommended its municipalities do so. Only Mesquite did, in 2013.

The result: 7,156 people voted for that city’s mayor in 2016, compared with 3,480 people in 2011 and 3,247 in 2007.

Increased turnout wasn’t the only benefit to Mesquite. It also saved the city about $20,000, because Clark County does not charge for sharing its ballot on even-numbered years.

In December, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee introduced a proposal to make the switch, but he was the only one on the council who supported it. Henderson and Las Vegas have discussed the option but haven’t taken action.

Next week’s primary will cost Las Vegas $250,000. In 2015, it cost Henderson $100,097 and North Las Vegas $68,102.

During discussions on a possible switch, North Las Vegas councilmembers cited concerns that their races would be overlooked at the bottom of a longer, consolidated general election ballot.

UNLV political science professor David Damore said changing the election cycle would increase turnout but also have unintended consequences: “(It would) likely also increase campaign costs.”

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