Here’s hoping last week’s dismal turnout of only about 22% of registered voters to elect Duluth City Council and Duluth School Board members rekindles talk of moving local elections in Duluth to even-numbered years.
Abolishing off-year local elections would align our city races with higher-profile state and federal races, including, every four years, presidential elections. Since upwards of 80% of registered voters in Duluth participated in the last three presidential tilts, piggybacking on state and federal elections almost certainly would drive up voter participation in the local races.
And it would save us taxpayers money. Holding standalone local elections costs the Duluth school district an estimated $72,000 and the city of Duluth about $120,000, as the News Tribune reported last December.
A study group advising the Duluth Charter Commission explored switching to elections in even-numbered years in the spring of 2019, but the Charter Commission failed to put it to a public referendum vote. Last week’s voter turnout can prompt the actions necessary to finally get this in front of the electorate in Duluth.
It’s not a new idea. 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 legislation 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 or both.
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 — in 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; we'd 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 of Minnesota, too. The Duluth school district was one of only 31 districts in the state, out of 336, holding onto more-expensive odd-year elections, the News Tribune reported last year. Since then, the Duluth district became one of just 30 after the Mankato district approved extending board member terms by one year and moving to even-year election cycles.
A voter turnout of about 30% is what Duluth typically has for off-year local elections, Duluth Director of Administrative Services Chelsea Helmers told the News Tribune last week. While that’s a few percentage points higher than in the local elections this year, it’s still unacceptably low and a disappointing display of public participation. It’s far short of achieving true representative government.
Shifting local elections in Duluth from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years would help. The move can be embraced in the coming months by the Duluth school district, lawmakers in St. Paul, and the city — in the name of saving taxpayers serious money while also increasing voter participation and engagement in local government.