Roughly 67 percent of all eligible Americans cast their votes for president last November, a record turnout. But come this fall, when Americans in more than 350 large cities get the chance to elect their mayor, precedent suggests that less than 15 percent of eligible voters may show up if the election is only at the municipal level.
That level of voter turnout is bad news for America’s cities.
The fact is that for most of us, the person you elect as mayor will affect your day-to-day life more than the politicians you sent to Washington, D.C., last year. Does your street need fixing? Is there a strange odor coming from your tap water? Are the buses always late? Is a nearby abandoned building becoming an eyesore? Do your police officers have a high level of training and equipment? Usually it’s the mayor’s job to tackle those problems.
The role of a mayor has become even more critical and high profile over the past few years. Mayor Ted Wheeler faced the national TV cameras in Portland, Oregon, last year during anti-racism protests. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava had to contend with national scrutiny as she dealt with safety issues after a condo building in her jurisdiction collapsed, leaving nearly 100 people dead.
Probably the most critical job of any mayor is public safety, and that responsibility has overshadowed almost everything else since the murder by a police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and other high-profile police uses of force that have dominated the news.
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“It is a matter of life and death on the streets of America’s cities,” says Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state who has studied voter turnout in local elections and advocates for greater ballot access. “Your child who is a minority may get pulled over for driving with an expired license and may well end up dead because of policies of the mayor and police force. Your chance to own a home may never be above zero percent because of certain policies in your city.”
Up close and personal
In Burnsville, Minnesota, a city of about 62,000 people, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, 74, sees her job as being available to constituents even when she is supposedly on her own time.
“When you go to the grocery store, stand in line at the coffee shop or eat at a restaurant, people say, ‘Mayor, I’ve got this pothole on my street. What are you going to do about it?’ ” Kautz says. In the early days of her mayorship, “my husband and sons would say, ‘We’re taking two cars to church,’ so that I could stay and talk to everybody and answer their questions.”
Sometimes being mayor is as much about letting people know what you’re not responsible for as what you are. “People feel like they can ask their mayors for anything,” says Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “If their Social Security check isn’t coming, that has nothing to do with a mayor. They still say, ‘Mister mayor, can you help me with this?’ ”
It is not unusual for Albany, New York, Mayor Kathy Sheehan to get complaints about school taxes even though, like most mayors, she doesn’t have control over the local school system. Most cities in the United States have separately elected school boards. “It is frustrating. We have a school system that really struggles,” she says. “Our high school graduation rate is, to me, just indefensibly low.” So when it comes to the school system or other programs, like social services or Medicaid, that the county, state or federal governments control, Sheehan turns into an advocate for her city’s residents.
Dismal election turnouts
Despite their importance, turnout for mayoral elections held in “off-off” years like 2021 is a small fraction of the ballots cast in midterm and presidential elections. Keisling and his team at Portland State University found that between 2011 and 2015, the turnout of eligible voters for elections in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was less than 15 percent. His project also found that, as in presidential elections, more older voters go to the polls. His data showed that city residents age 65-plus were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than those between 18 and 34.
The day after New York City’s mayoral primary, Eric Adams, who is expected to go on to win the general election in November, said: “Social media does not pick a candidate. People on Social Security pick a candidate.”
“Local elections are where the rubber really hits the road,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer. “That’s why it’s important for older Americans to participate in local elections — and why so many of them do.”
Sheehan believes turnout goes up when people are angry about how they are being governed. “If people are really unhappy and trying to get you out of office, they come out,” she says. They also turn out, she adds, to support someone they strongly believe in. But she agrees that turnout is usually too low.
Keisling says that making it easier to vote — especially automatically sending ballots to homes — is one way to increase turnout. So is enlisting help from faithful voters. “There’s a moral obligation for us to make it clear why it matters so much,” Keisling says. That’s true, he notes, even if we don’t agree on the issues.
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.