The Duluth City Charter Commission is poised to make a decision that could affect local elections for generations to come—but the proposal ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Last October, Commissioner Jeff Anderson (the former city councilor and District Director for former Congressman Rick Nolan) proposed that the commission consider amending the city charter to hold City of Duluth and ISD 709 elections in even-numbered years. St. Louis County already holds its elections in even-numbered years.
The most obvious argument for switching is to save money. “Cost sharing [for elections] is allocated,” says City Clerk Chelsea Helmer, “so any time you share ballot space, you share costs.”
For example, in 2015, the City spent approximately $61,000 and the School District approximately $57,000 to run an off-year election, in which only local city and school district candidates and referendum questions were on the ballot.
In 2016, the City’s portion of the primary and general elections cost $161,000. (The City covers election costs for its 34 precincts, regardless of who’s on the ballot. The County and School District are responsible for their precincts outside the city.)
Switching City and School District elections to even years would save about $85,000. It wouldn’t erase the full cost of off-year elections—equipment, judges, etc. would still be needed—but cost-sharing would absorb about half the financial burden.
But buyer beware: There are a host of inobvious costs—to the candidates running for office, to the voters, and to our entire local democratic process.
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Former Mayor Don Ness, one of the more vocal skeptics on the Charter Commission, points out that, while $85,000 is nothing to sneeze at, the City’s entire general fund budget is $85 million.
“It’s not an insignificant amount of money,” says Ness. “But I think accountability for those dollars is important...If City elections become down-ballot during presidential elections, I think you’re weakening that accountability. People may not even know who their candidates are.”
And local elections definitely would move down-ballot, because it’s required by Minnesota law. Minn. Rule 8250.1810 mandates that the largest jurisdictions appear at the top of the ballot and move down the ballot according to size.
Federal races—President of the United States and Congress—always appear first, followed by state races—governor and the legislature. Next, would be county races, followed by city, then the school district, and, finally, races for elected judges.
This means, for example, tiny county races, like Soil and Water Conservation District, would appear on the ballot ahead of the Mayor and City Council. The City Parks Board and Hospital Board (yes, we have a Hospital Board) would appear on the ballot above School Board members and school levies.
“I know in my own experience,” says Ness, “I get my ballot, and I get down to the Soil and Water Conservation District, and I can share that I often don’t know who the candidates are or what the issues are. So I’m participating; there’s a vote being cast. But I don’t feel as confident in my vote.”
(Don’t judge. You’ve done it, too; so have I. Do you know who you voted for for Hospital Board? No, you don’t. Because you didn’t even know there was a Hospital Board until I just told you.)
This is no minor consideration. Factor in the extravaganza of a presidential race, with congressional and state legislature races. Throw in a few referendums, a school levy, the county attorney and the county sheriff—and the Charter Commission has actually had to consider how small the state will allow ballot font to be printed. (The law requires “easily readable type” with “suitable” space in between.)
“It’s less about the capability of voters than it is about the ability to run a campaign,” says Ness. “My first run for mayor, Charlie [Bell] and I had probably 20 debates, which allowed voters to understand the differences between our visions and ideas. If there had been a presidential or gubernatorial race going on at the same time, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. That’s just the reality.”
County Commissioners Frank Jewell and Beth Olson have both experienced campaigning during off-year elections (Jewell was a city councilor from 1987 to 1991, and Olson made an unsuccessful bid for city council in 2009). Both say attempting to reach voters in even-year elections is significantly more difficult, because the presidential and congressional races suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Olson would actually prefer to see County races move to odd years, rather than allow City and School concerns to be drowned out by the constant barrage of federal politicking and attack ads. “Everything gets consumed by those bigger races...People tune out. They get burned out by it.
“When you’re out talking to people, what I ended up talking about was infrastructure, and child protective services, and health and human services—what the County actually does. The bigger your area, the harder it is to reach people face-to-face. School Board referendums would really struggle to get attention. The mayor has to reach the entire city.”
Voter turnout is significantly higher in even-year elections. Duluth’s voter turnout (counting only general elections) was 42 percent in 2015; 80 percent in 2016; 28 percent in 2017; and 73 percent in 2018.
However, this only reflects the number of ballots cast, regardless of whether the person voted in only one race or filled out their whole ballot. And it doesn’t account at all for simply how much information we voters can hold in our heads at one time.
“I’m very aware that more people vote in [even years],” say Frank Jewell. “But it depends on what gets talked about. If it’s the only game in town, it gets talked about. If there are eight games in town, it doesn’t...I think you’d see a drop-off in [votes cast in] local elections. People would vote for president and then drop off, similar to how it is for judges.
“A ton of people in even years vote a straight ticket [meaning they vote entirely for one political party]. In municipal elections, [candidates] aren’t named by party, so you have to know more about the folks who are running”—or just not vote in any race that doesn’t have a D or an R to cue you.
Charter Commissioner Ryan Stauber, a 911 dispatcher who has run for school board, city council, and the Minnesota House, is concerned about “non-partisan races becoming partisan due to coordination with larger races” if they were held at the same time.
Although local elections in Minnesota are all non-partisan by state law, parties can still endorse local candidates. Once a party has endorsed a local candidate, that candidate is just as eligible for party assistance as if they were running for a partisan seat.
Through what’s called “coordinated campaign,” the party can provide volunteers, joint fundraisers, and joint advertising to local candidates by linking them to bigger-name candidates, creating a loophole by which partisan politics—and partisan money—can enter local races that are supposed to remain above the fray. As long as local elections are in odd years, there’s little opportunity for that, but put them on the same ticket, and the floodgates are open.
The political parties would become kingmakers. Who could compete with the school board or city council candidate whose star is hitched to a popular state or national candidate? And at that point, who is really making the decisions about our community?
The Charter Commissioners want to hear from you! Use the contact information below to tell them what you think about this proposal. (Click to enlarge.)