When a presidential election is on the marquee, it’s easy to get voters out to do their civic duty around the country and in Denton County. But when it comes to municipal elections, the county’s registered voters mostly stay home.
Political officials say changing that behavior starts with educating voters and making races seem relevant.
“For a change locally, you would need to have a significant change in how people view politics,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas. “And most of their attention is on the national race.”
Denton County voters run hot and cold on Election Day. When there is little on the ballot — as was the case in the state’s constitutional amendment elections in 2001 and 2011, less than 3 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Turnout for local races, usually held on the uniform election day in May, often hovers in single digits, particularly when there isn’t a mayoral race.
“Oddly enough, people get more energized about national elections than local, and these have a more direct effect on people’s daily lives,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “There has always been an inverse relationship.”
Eshbaugh-Soha said part of the issue is population, as Denton has many young people who may not feel the races on the ballots are relevant because they will be leaving the area for school or after school.
Another reason, Eshbaugh-Soha said, is a lack of knowledge about municipal elections.
“If you can give people the information and it is relatively easy for them to acquire enough information to determine what their positions are and make it to vote, you will see an increase in turnout,” he said. “People may not have something to latch onto for why these races are important and who they should vote for.”
He said it was impossible to miss with national elections, as voters are saturated with that information at every turn.
On the surface, it looks like Denton County voters have been increasingly motivated by the presidential races, from a 55 percent turnout for Bush vs. Gore in 2000, to a 65 percent turnout for Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, to a 71 percent turnout for Obama vs. McCain in 2008.
But when viewed against total voter registrations, a picture of voter enthusiasm becomes cloudy. From 2000 to 2010, the county’s population increased about 53 percent but voter registrations increased at only about 35 percent.
While some calls have gone out for changes — such as online voting — to make things easier for people, Dianne Edmondson, leader of the Denton County Republican Party, said making voting easier does not mean more people will vote or vote intelligently.
“Voting is a privilege,” she said. “If people don’t choose to exercise it, it is really their fault. We give them two full weeks of early voting; you can vote anywhere in the county. On Election Day, polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can’t make it any easier for them.”
Edmondson said that to her knowledge no one has ever said they are not voting because it is too hard to get to the polls.
“I have never heard that; most of them don’t care,” she said.
Edmondson said her party encourages people to get involved and even run whenever possible for positions such as the school board. The school board is responsible for educating children and spending residents’ tax dollars.
“If the school boards, for example, decided to triple our taxes, teach socialism in schools, do some things to really go down the wrong path, you might see a dramatic change” in voting numbers, Edmondson said. “Short of that, I don’t think people are paying enough attention and I don’t think they have anything to grab their attention.”
Citing problems with the way things in the country are going, Edmondson said the spike in voting every four years is from people who can’t wait to get to the polls to try to effect change, starting with the White House.
The county’s Democratic Party leader, Phyllis Wolper, said that in 2008 a lot of people voted for president and nothing else.
“We have very much stepped up our message on the importance of voting down ballot,” Wolper said. “Unfortunately, the size and scope of these presidential elections dwarf anything local candidates can do to get their message out.”
As for municipal elections, Wolper said there is a lack of publicity for the races.
“The parties, we’re supposed to be nonpartisan on those [elections], so we’re not joining in an effort to promote them, and the turnout is very light,” she said.
Like Edmondson, Wolper said her party is constantly encouraging members to vote in every election.
“But there is not that steady drumbeat from the national type of election to drum it into people’s minds the importance of getting that vote done,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibilities — the parties, the candidates, the media — to help remind people as much as we can of the importance of voting in every election, no matter who you support.”
Staff writer Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe contributed to this report.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .