A simple shift that would cut local government spending by $100,000 or more while also increasing participation in local elections was a no-brainer the last time it was in the news, 20 months ago.
It’s still a good idea for Duluth.
In the spring of 2019, a study group advising the Duluth Charter Commission explored conducting local elections during even-numbered years, aligning them with higher-profile state and federal races, including presidential elections.
Local elections are held in odd-numbered years now. Switching would eliminate the high cost of holding standalone local elections. Few taxpayers would balk at the Duluth school district saving an estimated $72,000 and the city of Duluth about $120,000 every election, as a News Tribune story reported over the weekend.
The proposal is making headlines again — it seemed to be dead last year when the charter commission failed to put it to a public referendum vote — because a school district administrator rekindled it by suggesting it last week during a School Board meeting.
Not that it’s a new idea. In fact, the School Board voted in 2015 to make the switch but reversed course when it was realized special legislation dating way back to 1973 binds the board’s election cycle to the city’s in Duluth.
The School Board can seek legislation this coming session in St. Paul to free itself from that 1973 law. If successful, the city would have all the reason it needs to also make the switch, whether via Charter Commission action or a referendum vote. Either way, taxpayers in Duluth would start saving serious cash.
Duluthians would also vote more often in local elections. Consider that fewer than 28% of Duluth’s registered voters cast ballots in the 2017 local elections and that greater than 80% participated in the last two presidential elections. Piggybacking on state and federal elections almost certainly would drive up voter participation in the local races.
Concerns about local races getting lost in the enormous shadow of state and federal runs are legitimate. But they can be countered by a bit of extra effort on the part of candidates and voters alike. Those running for office already should be doing all they can to make sure voters know who they are, where they stand, and why they're the best choice. Likewise, voters have a responsibility to educate themselves and to do their homework before going to their polling places.
Casting an informed vote — on all races, not just the biggies — is our responsibility and duty as voting and decision-making citizens. And local elections on the same ballots as higher-profile races would put local elections more on voters' radars; wed be in "election mode" already because of all the attention given to statewide and federal runs.
This simple switch would help align Duluth with much of the rest of the state. The Duluth school district is one of only 31 in Minnesota, out of 336, holding onto more-expensive odd-year elections, according to the News Tribune story this weekend. And Duluth is soon to be one of just 30: The public school district in Mankato last year approved extending board member terms by one year and moving to even-year election cycles.
Shifting local elections in Duluth from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years can be embraced in the coming months first by the Duluth school district, then by lawmakers in St. Paul, and finally by the city — in the name of saving taxpayers serious money while also increasing voter participation and engagement in local government.