The Duluth Charter Commission wants to know what people think of a proposal to switch up the local government election cycle. A study group has been exploring the idea of electing people to city, county and school board offices only on even-numbered years, instead of on odd-numbered years, as is now the practice.
The commission will take public testimony on the idea when it meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday in City Council chambers.
There are certainly pros and cons to the idea, as evidenced by the lively discussion that took place at the Charter Commission's most recent meeting March 21.
Probably the biggest selling points for switching to even-year elections would be to reduce costs and boost voter turnout.
The cost of conducting odd-year primary and general elections runs between $120,000 and $165,000, according to Duluth City Clerk Chelsea Helmer. Those costs could be shed if local elections were scheduled to coincide with state and federal elections.
Charter Commission member Jeff Anderson brought forward the idea of the election-year shift and said the move would make sense from a pocketbook standpoint.
"It's a financial no-brainer. Any time you can save a few hundred thousand dollars for taxpayers, that's a good thing," he said.
Another potential benefit would be to boost participation in local elections, which typically draw fewer voters to the polls than even-year elections. For instance, fewer than 28 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots in the 2017 general election.
In contrast, the 2018 midterm congressional election drew 72 percent of registered local voters to the polls. And in 2016, when President Donald Trump was elected, more than 80 percent of Duluth's registered voters showed up to cast their ballots.
While piggy-backing on state and federal elections likely would drive up voter participation, 3rd District St. Louis County Commissioner Beth Olson suggested it could also cause local elections to become more partisan. Currently, candidates for local office often run without declaring any party affiliation.
It also could be a challenge for local candidates to cut through the din of higher-profile state and federal races, said 1st District St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, who expressed concern that local voices could be "lost in the noise of the election."
Not everyone who shows up for even-year elections will necessarily vote on local races, warned Charter Commission member and former Mayor Don Ness. He described a phenomenon he called "voter exhaustion," referring to people who only vote the top of the ticket and run out of gas before they get to local races further down the ballot.
Andrew Poole, president of the Charter Commission, shared Ness' concern, saying: "We might be getting bigger voter turnout, but that might not relate to more votes for local candidates."
Jewell said he appreciates the idea of reducing election costs and boosting turnout.
"But there's something about having municipal elections noticed by people. That, to me, seems more important in some ways than having more people voting. I think you would really notice that change if you were to move to presidential election years," he said.
Ness said the odd-year election cycle provides space for local issues and candidates to connect with voters in a way that would be tough to duplicate in a more crowded political setting.
"Every other year, in those off-year elections, we get a chance to know local city council, school board and mayoral candidates in a way that we wouldn't get to know them if they were running in even years, because those are more of a horse race, and the attention is obviously going to be on those statewide races and the presidential race," he said.
From a financial standpoint, Ness said he understands the appeal of switching entirely to an even-year schedule for local elections, but he questioned if it was worth the tradeoffs.
"While I do appreciate the cost-saving element of it, in my mind the cost involved is a small price to pay for allowing folks to engage and really understand and have some accountability toward the elected officials who are voted in," he said.
Jewell pointed to Duluth's passage of a referendum to support the city's parks during an odd-year election.
"I think it would have been completely lost in the election if you would have done that in a gubernatorial or presidential election year," he said.
Ness suggested Duluth's 2017 referendum on a half-percent tax to fund city street upkeep also may have been difficult to pass in the midst of a state and federal election cycle.
Charter Commission member Betty Greene said she hopes local residents will share their thoughts about possibly shifting entirely to even-year elections Wednesday, saying that the commission needs more community input on the idea.
If the Charter Commission decides to push forward, it could recommend an election year shift to the Duluth City Council, which could change the charter only by a unanimous 9-member vote. Another possible route to amend the charter would be to put the proposed change to a citywide referendum vote.